When I first learned to drive, I remember thinking that it was so much fun! I just loved to drive as much as I could. Every chance I got, I would get in the car, and go drive somewhere – it didn’t really matter where. I had my favorite roads and favorite streets, but it was all so new to me, that I enjoyed driving everywhere. But people kept hitting me – at least that’s the way I viewed it.
One day when I first started driving, I was a little hesitant about going fast, so I was driving at 25 mph, and some guy rammed into me from behind because he was 65. But when the police showed up – guess what? – they said it was my fault! Apparently, it is reckless driving to drive too slow on the interstate.
Well, I learned my lesson. I didn’t want to get hit from behind again. So the very next week, I was driving along at 65 mph, and wouldn’t you know it, I rammed into somebody who was only going 25 mph. Well, when the cops showed up, I told up it was the other guys fault because he was going too slow, but he ended up writing me a ticket! He said I was speeding in a school zone and could have killed someone!
So I learned that lesson too. I learned all about speed limits and to not go too fast or too slow. But one week later, I was driving along at the speed limit, and some guy comes along driving the opposite direction in my lane, and we had a head on collision. The cops showed up and I told them I was driving the speed limit, so it wasn’t my fault. But guess what? They gave me another ticket because I was driving the wrong way down a one-way street!
Now I knew enough not to get into any more accidents. I would drive the speed limit. I would drive the right way down the streets. Not too hard, right?
Well, wouldn’t you know it, the very next week, I was driving through town, and some guy rammed right into the side of my car! I was fuming mad! I had done everything right. That is what I told the police when they showed up. But once again, I got blamed for the accident because apparently, those red lights above the intersections aren’t just for decoration. I had always thought that people were so friendly because they all honked at me as I drove through.
I could go on and tell you about the time I drove drunk, the time I drove with a revoked license, the time I tried driving backwards, the time I drove with my eyes shut, the time I drove with no hands, the time I drove while sitting in the backseat, the time I drove while sitting in the passenger seat like the mailmen do. And every single time, I was the one who got the ticket. Every single time I also learned a new lesson about driving. Of course, now it’s too late. They don’t let you drive when you’re in prison. I only wish someone had given me the list of rules before I ever started driving.
That’s a fictional account. I made it all up. You do not have to be scared of my driving. Although I have been in one or two accidents, none of those things ever happened to me. I’ve never heard of anybody who is such a bad driver as that. But have you ever thought about driving? It is insane to strap yourself into a little metal box and go careening down a paved stretch of ground at 65 mph with a thousand other cars going every which direction on the same stretch of ground. The only reason we don’t all get killed on the roads is because everybody knows the rules and tries to drive according to them, and there are law enforcement officers to correct those who break the driving rules.
Rules and Guidelines for Bible Study
Well guess what? Just as rules must exist and must be obeyed for everyone to drive safely, so also rules must exist and must be obeyed if Christians are going to understand the Bible correctly. The sad thing is that most Christians study their Bibles the way I fictionally drove a car. They don’t know the rules – or that there even are rules – and so when they get into an accident, or an error, or a false teaching – they think it’s everybody else’s fault.
But if all Christians could set and abide by certain rules of Bible study, there would not be nearly so much disagreement and confusion in Christianity today. There would not be so many churches and denominations. We would all be more unified. Yes, there will still be some disagreement, just as there are still some accidents when you drive. But just as driving rules help us drive more safely, so Bible study rules help us understand the Bible more correctly.
And just as there are no secret driving rules, there are no secrets to unfolding the truths of Scripture. Most of it is just discipline and practice. I want to provide some general guidelines that I have found to be beneficial over the years. Before we look at them, you should understand the difference between reading the Bible devotionally, and studying the Bible. Though the principles for both are much the same, the purpose is different. When you read the Bible devotionally, you are reading to feed your own spirit. It is opening Scripture and saying, “Here I am God. Feed me.” Devotional reading is spiritual food for that day alone. Often times, you have difficulty remembering from week to week the spiritual meals you ate.
Studying the Bible goes beyond that. While studying the Bible always begins with wanting to be fed, it also seeks to feed others. The goal of Bible study is to pass on what you learn to others. To teach others. Bible study puts the lessons in long term memory. When you come back to a passage you really studied, you remember the lessons you learned, and you are able to pass them on to others. Very rarely do I teach others what I learn in my devotions. Those lessons are too intimate. Too personal. Too emotional. They are truths and insights God gave to me for that day. They do not fit in a sermon or Bible study. That’s because when I read the Bible devotionally, I pray, “God, give me something today.”
But when I sit down to study the Bible for a sermon or a Bible study, I not only pray for something for me, I pray for something for those who will hear me also. Sometimes the devotional truth and the teaching truth overlap, but often times they do not. I want to share with you some principles for both devotional reading of Scripture, and also some principles for Bible study. The principles overlap, but I have found it helpful when I sit down in front of God’s Word, to know why I am there. This effects how I read and how I approach the text.
This will make more sense as I explain the two different approaches. Let’s talk first about devotional reading. This is probably more important that Bible study, because you will never be a good teacher or have good Bible study unless your own spirit is already well nourished by the Word.
I. Devotional Reading of the Bible
Devotional reading is all about one thing: reading. There is no such thing as devotions unless you are spending time reading the text. Whether it’s a large text like several chapters, or a small text like a verse or two, devotions are not being done unless there is a text of Scripture being read, memorized or focused upon.
You are not having devotions if all you read is a devotional book. Despite their name, devotional books are not a substitute for devotions. I read certain devotional books, but never do I read them instead of the Word of God. If you are going to feed your spirit, you must give it spiritual food, which is found only in Scripture. When you read Scripture, there are certain ways to read. If you want to get the most out of your devotional reading of Scripture, you must read with your five senses. Not with your five physical senses – seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling – but with your five spiritual senses. I did not come up with these on my own, but have picked them up here and there over the years. The first spiritual sense is that you must read consistently.
A. Read the Bible Consistently
Having devotions is like eating meals. You can’t do it hit or miss. You can’t be sporadic. If you want to be healthy, you’ve got be consistent. That means that every single day, you are spending time in the Word. You won’t remember everything you read. Sometimes, you won’t remember anything you read. Though this should not be the normal pattern, and while we don’t want to be legalistic about our Scripture reading, we do need to be consistent in it. It is over the long haul that Scripture does the most good.
It’s like the old saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” I don’t know if it is true or not, but let’s say it is. When you get sick, an apple is not going to help you much. The vitamins and nutritional value of the apple is what prevents you from getting sick. But once you are sick, an apple a day won’t help much. Bible reading too is preventative. Over the long haul, it cleanses your mind, and fortifies your spirit, and increases your strength and your faith. If you turn to the Bible only in the times of crisis and temptation, while it will help, it’s often too little and too late. You’ll find yourself quoting Scripture as you walk off into sin.
A friend of mine had a drinking problem, and he only turned to Scripture for help when he was facing severe temptation, which of course, was not very effective. One day, he got in a drunk driving accident. He slammed into a telephone pole. It was ironic, because right next to his six pack of beer on the driver’s side seat was a the Bible on Cassette tape. He was drinking and driving while listening to the Bible on cassette. He is alright, but they took his license away.
You must read consistently, not just when you are in a crisis or need a spiritual boost. It’s over the long haul that Scripture is most beneficial. One of the things that will help you remain consistent is having a set place and set time for reading and study.
Ruth Graham Bell said, “it could be merely a piece of plywood stretched across two sawhorses. But have a special place for Bible study that doesn’t have to be shared with sewing or letter writing or the paying of bills. For years, mine was just an old wooden table between an upright chest of drawers and a taller desk. This year I fixed myself a permanent office upstairs and my Bible study in the bedroom is now a big roll top desk I have had for years.
“But on this desk I have collected a number of good translations of the Bible for reference, a Bible dictionary, a [fine-point pen that writes on thin Bible paper] without smearing or going through. When we were in school, we always kept a notebook handy to take notes of the professor’s lecture. How much more important it is to take notes when God is teaching us.”
If you don’t have a place picked out, you’ll stand in the hall, and you’ll say, “There’s no quite place to go. Music is playing the living room. TV is on in the family room. Cooking is going on in the kitchen. There’s no place to go. Well, let’s check the e-mail.”
Some of you might be saying – especially some of you mothers, “What you are saying is really not possible for me. I have four kids at home and everywhere I go, there are bills to be paid, letters to be answered, phone calls to be returned, rooms to be cleaned, children to be taken care of. It really is not possible for me to find a place all my own where I can be alone with God and with Scripture.”
Mrs. Wesley, the wife of the great preacher Charles Wesley had 16 children. 16 kinds, noise, noise, noise. Where you going to go? Susanna Wesley was such a disciplinarian, that she taught these 16 children “when you walk into the kitchen, and my apron is over my head, you don’t say a word.” That’s her quiet place. She just created one. And she was strong enough that her kinds obeyed. When Momma’s apron is over her head, The Bible is open and she is with God – in the holy place, and you don’t interrupt her. That’s consistency. The second spiritual sense which helps in Bible reading is that you must read prayerfully.
B. Read the Bible Prayerfully
I cannot tell you the value and importance of praying right before you read Scripture. It doesn’t have to be a long prayer. Just pray that as you read God’s Word, He would reveal some passage, some verse, some truth to you which He wants for you that day. Pray that He would give you the Word for the day. Pray that He would give you your daily spiritual bread.
There are so many forms this prayer can take. I find it sometimes helpful to pray an actual Scripture. Remember little Samuel’s statement? “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening’ (1 Sam. 3:9-10). Other times, I like to use a verse out of Psalm 119. Verse 18 for example, says “Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your Law.” The Bible is full of such prayers for understanding and wisdom and spiritual enlightenment. Sometimes, I just pray that the Holy Spirit would unveil my eyes and shed light on the Word as I read.
Now, once I have opened with prayer, I read Scripture prayerfully also. I try to pray the words of Scripture for myself, for my family, my wife, my children, for this church. Especially when I find the Word or passage for that day, then I focus my prayers around that passage. Read prayerfully. George Whitefield wrote in his journal, “I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books, and praying over, if possible, every line and word. This proved meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul. I daily received fresh life, light and power from above.”
Once you have prayed, you need to come to the text believing that God will answer your prayer. This is the third spiritual sense of devotional reading. You must read expectantly.
C. Read the Bible Expectantly
I think a lot of people don’t get anything out of their Bible reading because they don’t expect to. They have been told a pack of lies that the Bible is boring, that is difficult to understand, that it is full of lists and genealogies that don’t mean anything to us today, that only the educated can understand it, that there are too many difficulties and hurdles to overcome.
Forget all that! Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will help us understand Scripture if we just listen (John 16:13-14). This does not mean, as some teach, that you just sit there with a blank mind, and wait for the Holy Spirit to speak to you. No, the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Word of God. You hear from the Spirit by listening to what He is saying in the text. The same Spirit that inspired the text will also illumine the text.
But only if we are expectantly listening for Him. You want to know a secret in doing this? Have a devotional journal in hand. Have paper and pen ready. There is not something magical about taking notes, or jotting down ideas, but the act of writing with pen on paper forces us to slow down, sit silently, and listen. It shows God that we expect to hear something from Him. It also shows our mind that we mean business. It helps keep our mind focused.
By the way, this not only applies for devotions, but for church as well. People who come to church with a pen, notebook, and Bible in hand will always receive much more out of the service than will somebody who comes with none of those things. I do not know how it works, I do not know why it works, but if you look throughout history and throughout any church, and you will find that the note takers and those who have a devotional journal are those who seem to have the best grasp of what the Bible says, and what He is saying to them in it. Come to word expecting to receive something from God, and He will not disappoint you. Sometimes, He will even surprise or shock you. He may even anger you. Which is where the fourth spiritual sense comes in. We must read the Bible humbly.
D. Read the Bible Humbly
If we are going to read the Bible, it must be with the attitude that we do not have it all figured out, that we are not living the perfect lives, that there is sin in our life that needs correction, and there are areas of doctrine that need fixing. The Bible is not only for encouragement and instruction, but also for reproof and correction. The only way you’ll get the full picture is if you are willing to see it. Sometimes, we read consistently, we read prayerfully, we read expectantly, but we don’t get anything out of our reading, because we read proudly. We don’t want to be challenged. We don’t want to be corrected. The passage or verse or truth that God wants us to learn that day is an affront to our pride, so we ignore it. We pass over it. We say, that’s a verse for someone else, but not for me.
Sometimes the Word of God is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter. But we must accept both if we are going to hear the whole counsel of God. Sometimes it is like honey on our lips, sometimes it is a burning coal. When God gives you a burning coal, it is for purification. It is to make you better. This brings us to the fifth and final devotional sense. When God gives you something to fix in your life, you better obey. You must read obediently.
E. Read the Bible Obediently
Obedience to truths God has already shown you is a prerequisite for receiving more truth. Why would God show you more of His will, if you are not obedient to what He has already revealed? This too is why sometimes, we do not get anything out of our devotions. We were not obedient to what He had revealed, and He’s going to make us sit there at the red light until we get it right.
I could say an awful lot more about all of this, but I do want to explain some principles of Bible Study.
II. How to Study the Bible
These principles apply in devotional reading also, and the five senses of devotional reading definitely apply here. As indicated previously, I do not think anyone can truly teach a passage to others, until it has been taught to them by God. You cannot feed others from a passage of Scripture, until that passage has fed you. In an ideal setting, devotional reading of Scripture would not be separated from Bible study. But true Bible study takes up so much time and discipline that most people are not able to adequately do it. In my position as a pastor, I find that I generally have to devote 12-15 hours of Bible study for every sermon. This is typical for all the other pastors that preach the Word of God in a verse-by-verse fashion, though more experienced pastors have been able to prune that time down to about eight hours.
But let’s say we cut even that in half? How many of us have four hours a day to devote to Bible study so that we can fully understand and grasp a particular passage of Scripture? Not very many. This is why I have separated devotional reading from Bible study. We should be reading the Word every day to feed our spirits. As we do this, we can do our best in the short time we have every day to apply proper Bible study principles. But since most of us don’t have eight hours to check sources, and read commentaries, and do word studies, serious Bible study of every passage we read is not possible.
So I encourage people to read the Bible devotionally, and then, on the side, be involved in an in-depth study of a particular passage or book of the Bible. Here are the guidelines and principles for such study. These are the rules for correctly understanding any passage of Scripture. As we go through these principles, I will be giving examples from Scripture on how these principles have been broken at times. Possibly, as we go through them, some of you will be challenged to rethink a passage or verse which you have always understood in a certain way.
A. Study the Bible by Taking it Seriously
In years past, we have been told to interpret the Bible literally. But the problem with this is that the word literal gives some people the idea that there are no figures of speech or not symbols in the Bible. And that is the literal definition of the word “literal.” But we know that the Bible is full of symbols, and allegories and figures of speech and parables. Therefore, while we cannot always take what is said literally, we can take it seriously, or naturally. We all use figures of speech in every day language. The Bible does the same thing and should be understood in such a way.
Jesus said “I am the vine, you are the branches.” He is not literally a vine, and we not literally branches. Jesus also called himself a shepherd, the bread of life and a door. These are symbols. So when we say the Bible is to be taken literally, we mean that we must understand that all writers use symbols and figures of speech, but that these symbols, when understood, convey a literal truth. I think that of all the principles, the literal/serious principle is the most important.
We have this Bible, and we know it is a spiritual book, and so when we come to teachings or passages that just don’t seem real spiritual, we want to put a spiritual twist on it. Genesis 14:14 says that Abraham had 318 servants. People say, “Well, that’s not spiritual.” So they do all sorts of odd things to give this verse a spiritual truth. One man took the Hebrew consonants from Abraham’s name and assigned numerical figures to them, and then added these figures up. Guess what he discovered? The consonants of Abraham’s name add up to 318! Now that this discovery is made, they have to make it spiritually significant. They take the number 318, which they got from the Hebrew consonants of Abraham’s name, and convert it into Greek. The Greek letter tau stands for 300, the iota for 10 and the epsilon for 8. And then they say, “Oh wow! The tau looks like the cross, and the iota and epsilon are the first two letters of Jesus’ name in Greek, Iesus, and so here in Genesis 14:14, we have a prophecy that Christ will die on the cross. The man who taught this wrote, God “knows that I never taught to anyone a more certain truth.”
But is what he taught a “certain truth?” It is definitely true that Abraham had 318 servants. It is definitely true that Jesus died on the cross. But the number of Abraham’s servants is in no way a prophecy of Christ. It is telling us about Abraham’s wealth. About how God has blessed Abraham.
We must take the Bible seriously and naturally. When the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense. There’s not some hidden meaning. Not some secret meaning. Very likely, none of you had such a wrong view on Genesis 14:14. So let me give another example.
There is a popular method of finding Biblical prophecies right now called “Equidistant Lettering.” According to those who teach this, there are hidden Bible prophecies in the Hebrew and Greek which only super advanced computer programs can find. These programs take every seventh letter counting backwards, or when the letters are arranged in a grid, take the diagonals across the page – and if you figure out the right sequence, and apply it to the Bible, you come up with historical events that have happened.
I have several examples of how this works in my study. I even have a book or two on it. In one of the articles, the writer reveals that by using this equidistant lettering, he discovered a prophecy about the assassination of Ghandi. There was also a clear reference to Martin Luther King’s death. It says “M.L King prepared for death. To be killed – gun – in Tenn – U.S. Agent.” In another place, he found the statement that “Kennedy – in cars – rifle – shot – head – coffin.” Elsewhere, “Abe Lincoln cut down. Bang. Killed.”
Pretty amazing right? But what is even more amazing is that while most people who are into equidistant letter use only the Bible for the computerized searches, the writer of the article I have in my study did not use the Bible. Instead, he used Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. You see, the people who teach this are rightly amazed at the specific prophecies that can be found. But the facts are that the same exact thing can be done with any other book. It was done with Moby Dick. Mormons are doing it with the Book of Mormon. If equidistant lettering is proof that the Bible is God’s Word and contains the secret signature of God, then Moby Dick and the book of Mormon is also God’s Word for they too contain this so called “signature of God.” Equidistant lettering and hidden Bible codes are not taking the Bible seriously or naturally. It violates the first principle of interpretation. Take the Bible seriously.
B. Study the Bible by Understanding History and Culture
The second principle is that the Bible must be understood in its historical context. What culture and historical setting was the book being written in? What was the situation, style, language. Who was the Writer and who are the readers? It always helps to know the historical situation of the events in the Bible. Why did Jonah not want to go to Nineveh The Ninevites were atrocious in the way they treated their enemies. They beheaded the leaders of peoples they conquered and piled up those heads. They sometimes placed a captive leader in a cage, and treated him like an animal. Sometimes they skinned captives alive. No wonder Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. He was probably scared to go.
But he also hated the people of Ninevah. They were Israel’s enemies. But look at it from Jonah’s perspective. God tells him to go pronounce impending judgment on his most bitter enemy. That sounds like a fun task. If there was someone in your life that you just hate, and God told you to go tell that person that their life was going to end next week, wouldn’t you hop in your car as quick as you can and get over there to tell them? Of course you would, even if you feared them. So why didn’t Jonah? There is something more going on than just fear and hate. He certainly felt that they deserved any punishment God might inflict upon them for their atrocities. So why didn’t he go? You want to know why? Jonah tells us at the end of the book. It is because He knew that God was merciful and compassionate and slow to anger. Jonah didn’t go to Ninevah because the only thing he feared more than Ninevah was that God might show mercy to them. Understanding the historical context of Jonah really brings the book to life.
Another example where historical context is helpful is Jeremiah 10:1-5. When we read this passage today, we immediately think, “Uh-oh. This means I can’t have a Christmas tree.” But we only think that because we are forgetting principle number two. Some look at this passage from our culture and from our viewpoint, rather than from Jeremiah’s. If we make that mistake, it sounds like we should not have Christmas trees in our homes. But guess what? Christmas trees as we know them only began to be used less than 500 years ago. So Jeremiah obviously cannot be talking about Christmas trees. And in fact, when these five verses are carefully considered, we see what he is really talking about. He is not talking about Christmas trees, but about idols – the making, carving, crafting, decorating and worshipping of idols.
So if a person today is going to pray to and worship their Christmas tree, then yes, they shouldn’t have one in their home. But I do not know anyone who worships their Christmas tree. We make idols out of other things – like our cars, our jobs, our entertainment, our family time, or our recreation. An idol is anything that we place in a higher position than God. The lesson of Jeremiah 10 is not to get rid of Christmas trees, but to take a serious look at our life and get rid of any idols we find. Almost all of us have idols of one sort or another in our lives. That is what Jeremiah is warning against; not Christmas trees. And we learn this by looking at history and culture at the time when Jeremiah lived and wrote. That is the second principle.
C. Study the Bible by Understanding the Context
We must also understand the passage in the context it is found. Think of the passage as a bulls eye target. To hit the center of the target, you need to what is in the outer rings. Understand what the flow of the book has been up to that point. What is the outline of the book? What is the thought flow? What point is the author currently trying to make? What is the chapter about? What about the paragraph immediately before and after the passage? Some people call this getting 20/20 vision for the passage. Look at the 20 verses before and the 20 verses after the passage you are studying.
Part of this also involves figuring out what kind of literature you are studying. Is it a historical narrative? Is it a wisdom book like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes? Is it a prophetic book? Is it a letter? This principle makes sure you never isolate one verse and rip it out context. It has been said that a text without a context is a proof text for a pretext. In other words, passages taken out of context are most often used to support heresy and false teaching.
Take Gal. 3:28 for example. Feminists like to point to this verse and say, “See, we’re all equal in Christ. We can all do anything in Christ. A woman can be a pastor.” But if you understand the book and the culture and the writer, Gal has nothing to do roles of women and men in the church, but to show that men and women are equal before God in salvation. Both can come to God on the same basis of faith alone in Christ alone.
Matthew 18:20 is another great example. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this verse used in prayer meetings as proof that God is there. But does this mean that God is not there to hear the prayers of the Chinese Christian locked up in a cell all by himself? Of course not. God is there too. The truth is that Matthew 18:20 has absolutely nothing to do with prayer. God is just as present when one person prays as He is when 1000 pray. The context of the passage is all about church discipline. When two or three gather together to make a decision in the church about how to discipline a member, Jesus is right there with them helping them make that decision. Probably, understanding passages in context is the principle of interpretation most often broken.
D. Study the Bible by Understanding the Grammar
Grammar is the next important theme. This takes into consideration the organization of the sentence, prepositions, pronouns, verbs and nouns. Yes, the grammar you learned in third grade really was important. If you don’t know grammar very well, I recommend you get a simple grammar book to help you freshen up. Something like the Plain English Handbook. Once you understand basic grammar, you can create an outline of the passage by looking at the structure of the paragraph. You can outline the sentences.
Such disciplines will help you understand key words, terms and ideas of any passage. Matthew 28:19-20 is one example. A quick reading of the passage makes it seem like the word “go” is the main verb. But go is not the main verb. Making disciples is. The verse really should read, “While making disciples, go, baptize, teach.” What is the church supposed to be in the business of? Making disciples. Turning Christians into disciples. It’s only as we do this that people are sent, others are saved, and then they are taught, and the cycle begins all over again. That’s the goal of the church according to the Great Commission.
The problem is that in English, it is very difficult sometimes to tell which words are which. The English of Matthew 28:19 is very unclear. This is why a basic understanding of Greek and Hebrew can sometimes help. Someday, I will teach another study on how to use basic Greek and Hebrew language tools, even if you don’t know the language.
E. Study the Bible by Understanding the Definition of Words
A good dictionary is incredibly helpful at time. Although Webster’s is fine, I really recommend a Biblical dictionary or theological dictionary. Such dictionaries will help us understand what the words of a verse mean. Most people have the wrong definition for many words in Scripture. What did the words mean then? Do you remember when Bill Clinton was asked: “What is your relationship with Monica?” What did he say? “That depends on what you mean by the word “is.” We all laugh and maybe even sneer at such a remark, but Clinton was technically right. It does depend on the definition of words – even little words like “is.”
One of the things that separates Catholics, Lutherans and churches like ours is how we understand the word “is” in Matthew 26:26. Jesus held up the bread and the wine at the last supper and said, “This is my body; this is my blood.” What did He mean? Well, it all depends on what He meant by the word “is.” Catholics say that Jesus meant that the bread and the wine literally became Christ’s body and blood. When the priest blesses it, the bread and wine transform into Christ’s body. Lutherans take a spiritual view of the word is. They say that Christ meant that the bread and the wine spiritually become like Christ’s body and blood. At this church, we take a symbolic view of the word is. The bread and the wine are a picture and a reminder of what Christ did for us. There is nothing spiritual about them and nothing magical happens to them. Who is right? It depends on how you define the word “is.”
Another example where people have a wrong definition of a word is the word “save.” People think that every time the word “save” or “salvation” is found in Scripture, it means getting eternal life and going to heaven. But the word does not mean that. It means deliver, deliverance. Most of the time, it refers to being delivered from sickness, or enemies, not hell and eternal punishment. A lot of false teaching has risen from a faulty definition of the word “save.” We must understand what the words mean. That is another place where it is very helpful to go back to the Greek or the Hebrew. There are many good software programs out there which will help you do this.
F. Study the Bible by Understanding all of Scripture
This is comparing the conclusions of your study with the rest of the Bible. This is sometimes called the Analogy of Faith. You compare Scriptures with other Scriptures. This is taking the findings of your study and making sure that what you found does not contradict the rest of the Bible. If it does, either you are wrong about your interpretation of this particular passage, or you are wrong about all the other passages that disagree.
The Bible does not contradict itself. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul instructs women in church to pray and prophecy. But in 1 Corinthians 14, he tells the women to remain silent in church, and if they have a question, ask their husbands at home. But would Paul really contradict himself, especially so close to each other? These two statements can easily be harmonized, but in order to do that, you have to follow all the other principles I have already talked about. That’s your homework assignment.
Others look at the four gospels and see contradictions. But do they contradict? No. They provide different viewpoints on the same account. Like in a car accident, four people see it, all four see something different, but when all put together, it’s the same accident. The Bible never contradicts itself. Make sure that what you learn from a passage agrees with the rest of Scripture.
G. Study the Bible by Applying the Bible
This final step to interpreting the Bible makes your Bible study practical. It asks the question, “So what?” If the Bible is the wisdom of God, then we are required to do more than just understand it, we also need to apply it to our life. Notice that this principle comes at the end. You can’t apply the Bible until you have correctly understood the text.
Some of the questions I like to ask myself from a text are as follows. These seven have been of particular help to me.
- Is there an example for me to follow?
- Are there sins/errors to avoid?
- Is there a promise to claim?
- Are there commands to obey?
- Is there a condition to meet?
- Is there instruction to realize? (plug into the 12 divisions of theology)
- Is there a challenge to face?
Rightly understanding the Word of God is one of the most valuable things you can do with your time. Even if you don’t have four hours every day, I’m sure you can find half an hour. There are, of course, books that help in the Bible study process. If you’ve been in my study, you know that I love books. Every single one is a teacher that can help me better understand the Word of God. And I don’t have to pay them. They just sit there nice and quiet on my bookshelf, waiting to answer my questions. There are different types of books that I find valuable.
- Bible Atlas: Used to overcome geographical barriers.
- Bible Dictionary: Used to overcome language barriers.
- Bible Background: Used to overcome cultural barriers.
- Bible Commentary: Used to overcome language, cultural and literary barriers.
- Bible Interlinear: Used to overcome language barriers.
Get good books to help you study Scripture. But one piece of advice in using them. Only use books AFTER you have done your own study. Going too quickly to the books will short circuit God speaking to you personally through His Word. This is where true value in Bible study comes from.
John MacArthur said: “I have found that my spiritual growth is directly proportionate to the amount of time and effort I put into the study of Scripture.”
Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers the world has ever seen, was quite outspoken about how important Bible study was. Here is what he said, “There is enough dust on some of your Bible to write “damnation” with your fingers. You know more about your ledgers than your Bibles; you know more about your daybooks than what God has written.”
Today we might say, you know more about the part of your computer than you do the parts of your Bible or more about the lives of the players of your favorite sports team than you do about the lives of Christ and his apostles, you know more about the ways of the government then you do the ways of God, you know more about what is happening on “Days of Our Lives” or “Friends” than you do about what happened to Esther.
Spurgeon continues: “many of you will read a novel from beginning to end, and what have you got? A mouthful of froth when you are done. But you cannot read the Bible; that solid, lasting, substantial, and satisfying food goes uneaten, locked up in the cupboard of neglect.” Let that not be true of us. Read your Bible, study it, and pray over it, every single day.