4-7 How to Study the Bible
The best Bible students don't really need study helps, apart, perhaps, from a concordance. Read the word, love the word, study the word, make it personal to yourself. But we're all different. Some are naturally studious; others aren't. But my sense is that the vast majority of newly baptized brothers and sisters have learnt the Gospel through a course of study: either a correspondence course, or a series of lectures or structured discussions. Don't let that studious spirit slip! Don't let the fact that you know the basic elements of the true Gospel make you feel that you don't need to do any more serious study. The Lord Jesus spoke a parable about a man who buried his talent (the Truth he had received at baptism) in the earth, and then when he was condemned at the judgment, this man thinks he's being treated unfairly. This story was quarried from Jer. 13:5-10, where God tells Jeremiah to take a belt and bury it. It becomes spoilt and useless. This buried belt, according to God's own interpretation, represents those of His people " which refuse to hear my words, which walk in the imagination of their heart" . It was this which destroyed them, making them spiritually rot and decay until they were of no use. The Lord Jesus seems to foresee in His parable those who would accept His Truth, but bury it in the ground, effectively forgetting the love of His word, and yet assuming that simply because they possess the Truth they ought therefore to be in the Kingdom.
So, you need to study the word. But how to study the Bible? In the same way as you become a better writer or public speaker by reading and listening to people who know what they're doing, so, it seems to me, we become better Bible students by reading and listening to good Bible study. We need to do this, especially in our early years in Christ. But the thing is, no gem shines so brightly as the one you find yourself. You can read some of the finest Bible study ever, but it won't have the impact in your mind and living which discovering something for yourself gives. But then, you'll find it easier to discover your own gems if you listen to or read the writings of one who has found gem after gem in his (or her) own life.
Reading According To A Plan
Most importantly, read the Bible daily and systematically. There are several plans available to help this; I've always used the Bible Companion, a copy of which is available from Carelinks Ministries. Pray briefly before you read, as you would for daily food, thanking God for the power and grace of His word, and asking for your eyes to be opened to the real meaning, and that you will have God's gracious help to apply it in everyday life (cp. Ps. 119:18). Tragically, the practice of daily Bible reading seems to be decreasing amongst us; this shouldn't be so. I mention this because newly baptized brethren and sisters sometimes get terribly discouraged when they come to realize that in fact many of their new found brethren don't read the word daily. It's better to be open about this glaring weakness amongst us at the start. But all the same, it is absolutely evident that daily Bible study is our daily food. To neglect it is to commit spiritual suicide, to starve ourselves to death- even though of course it's the blood of Christ and not a book that saves us. If we are going to read daily, the Bible Companion system has the advantage that thousands of other believers who read daily, read according to this system. The things we read and study ought to be the basis of our correspondence and conversation with each other; Bible reading together ought to be an accepted part of every social visit or get-together amongst us. The disadvantage of reading by a plan is that reading disjointed chapters each day means that we may miss themes which are developed throughout a book. Paul's letters particularly are very thematic; and each Gospel record emphasizes different themes in the Lord's character and teaching. So try to read books through in one or two sittings, in addition to reading according to a plan.
Whether or not you feel you're getting a lot out of it or not, reading a spiritual book keeps the mind churning. It's rather like doing your daily Bible readings when you're tired; things go in which you don't realize. We need to buy up the opportunities to use time wisely (Eph. 5:16). Read something as you travel, perhaps in your lunch hour at work. It's surprising how much you can get through. Think of the mental energy of Paul, who bids us follow him as he followed Christ. He brought every thought (and this isn't figurative language) into captivity to Christ his Lord (2 Cor. 10:5). There are some fine passages in Proverbs concerning the urgency of our need to be consumed with the quest for Biblical wisdom: " Get wisdom, get understanding...wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting, get understanding...take fast hold of instruction...for she is thy life" (Prov. 4:5,7,13). Wisdom cries out loud to be heard (Prov. 8:1), and yet the righteous man " cries after wisdom, and lift(s) up (his) voice for understanding" (Prov. 2:3); there is thus a sense of mutuality here between God's wisdom and the sincere seeker. Every genuine believer will have felt this; we urgently cry for wisdom, and yet God's word is crying out to teach us. If this is our attitude, the things of the word will be our life (Prov. 4:13). As Israel were to talk about the word as they went out and came in and as they walked along the way, so should the new Israel (Prov. 7:2,3).
These passages all speak of an urgent need to learn God's wisdom, to seek and find His way. It surprises me that our probations are so short; we have perhaps 50 brief years at the most for God to achieve the necessary spiritual growth in us, so that we might be prepared for the glory of His eternal Kingdom. It follows that He is working very intensely in our lives; He tries us every moment, would we but realize it (Job 7:18). As we watch the clouds lazily drift across the sky, we lose sight of the fact that our planet is hurtling through space, with us thrown against the surface by the sheer speed of travel. And yet we are blissfully ignorant of that speed. And even more so in the path of our spiritual growth, we simply don't realize the speed and intensity with which God is working with us to make us His own. Our choice of careers, our effort to attain the peripheral things of the human experience, our seeking of our own human fulfilment, all these things must be minimized, subjected to the urgent necessity of spiritual growth.
I'd recommend that straight after baptism, you read or re-read a thorough statement of the basic doctrines of the Gospel, and make a list somewhere in your Bible of all the basic doctrines with verses to support them. These can be your first steps in how to study the Bible. You can add verses to this list as you come across them in your daily reading. Bible Basics was basically the write-up of ten years of jotting down such references in the front pages of my Bible. The headings I used were: 1. The Nature Of God; 2. The Nature Of Christ; 3. The Promises; 4. The Kingdom; 5. Death (Soul / Spirit / Hell); 6. The Devil / Satan; 7. Practical Living. These basic doctrines of the Gospel are the basis of all subsequent spiritual growth and understanding.
Spiritual Books That Contain False Doctrine
It's evident to me, from the very way the Bible is written, that an understanding of it's deeper parts depends upon a correct understanding of the basic doctrines. The milk of the word leads on to the meat; Heb. 5:13,14 implies you can only understand the meat if for some time you have been properly feeding on the milk. This means that those who don't understand the basic doctrines of the true Gospel can't really understand the meat of the word. For this reason, I'd recommend you keep away from books written by those who don't understand the basic doctrines. Spend your valuable time instead on studying the word for yourself or reading material written by those who have already progressed from milk to meat. What I observe with the studies written by non-Christians is that often they make very fascinating points which are quite out of context; e.g. some years ago, I read quite a compelling newspaper article which argued that a nuclear accident in the Ukraine fulfilled Rev. 8:11. This sounds interesting. But when you study Rev. 8, it's clear that the rest of the chapter has nothing to do with nuclear accidents in the Ukraine in 1986. The writer of the article was seizing upon a Bible verse and giving it some superficial application to a current event. This isn't Bible study.
Meditate upon it as you go around daily life. Israel were told: " Ye (plural) shall not tempt the Lord" . The Lord Jesus personalized this to Himself, and quoted it as: " Thou (singular) shalt not tempt the Lord" (Dt. 6:16 cp. Mt. 4:7). He told the Jews that when it is written " I am the God of Abraham" , this was God speaking unto them personally (" ...which was spoken unto you by God, saying..." ), teaching them personally that there would be a resurrection (Mt. 22:31). And yet the crowd were astonished at this way of reading Scripture (:33). David invites us to come and see the works God did at the Red Sea, commenting: “there did we rejoice in him” (Ps. 66:5,6). He praises God for saving him in the language of Israel’s Red Sea deliverance, speaking of it as “the day of my trouble” (Ps. 86:7,8 = Ex. 15:11). He saw how their circumstances and his were in principle the same; he personalized the Scripture he had read. When Israel kept the Passover, they were to say that this was the deliverance God had wrought “for me” (Ex. 13:8). “Turn thou to thy God” as Jacob did in the struggles of his life (Hos. 11:4). Often the Bible addresses the reader in the second person, as if he is actually present in the mind of the writer (e.g. Rom. 11:19; 14:15; 1 Cor. 7:16; 15:35). Such personalizing of Scripture is essentially how to study the Bible.
The Psalms so often encourage Israelites to feel as if they personally had been through the Red Sea experience. Generation would tell to generation the Passover story, and would also sing of God’s greatness as Israel did in Ex. 15 (Ps. 145:5-7). Hence: “He turned the sea into dry land…there let us (AV: did we) rejoice in him” (Ps. 66:6 RVmg.). We too are enabled by Scripture to feel as if we were there, and to rejoice in what God did for us there. This of course depends upon our sense of solidarity with God’s people over time, as well as over space.
All Scripture is recorded for our learning and comfort (Rom. 15:4). The exhortation of Prov. 3:11 “speaketh unto you as unto children...” (Heb. 12:5). Hebrews 3 quotes Psalm 95 as relevant to all readers. The warnings there for its " today" were also be a warning for the first century " today" , and yet likewise we can still take hold of the past word of God and relate it to the needs of our " today" . We can fail to personalize God’s word, in the sense of realizing that it speaks to us personally. Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar what would happen to him unless he repented; and he wouldn’t listen. When his judgment came, God told him: “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to thee it is spoken: The kingdom is departed from thee” (Dan. 4:31). We have a way of reading and hearing, and yet not making the crucial connection with ourselves. Paul pleads with Corinth to see the similarities between them and the ecclesia in the wilderness; he wants them to personalize it all. He sees their gathering and redistribution of wealth as exactly analogous to Israel’s gathering of manna (2 Cor. 8:15)- and he so wishes his Corinthians to think themselves into Israel’s shoes. For then they would realize that as Israel had to have a willing heart to give back to God the wealth of Egypt which He had given them, so they were to have a willing heart in being generous to their poorer brethren (Ex. 35:5 = 2 Cor. 8:12). And they would have realized that as “last year” they had made this offer (2 Cor. 8:10 Gk.), so the year before, Israel had received Egypt’s wealth with a similar undertaking to use it for the Lord’s cause. As Moses had to remind them a second time of their obligations in Ex. 35, so Paul had to bring it again before Corinth. And if they had seen these similarities, they would have got the sense of Paul’s lament that there was not one wise hearted man amongst them- for the “wise hearted” were to convert Israel’s gold and silver into tools for Yahweh’s service (Ex. 35:10 = 1 Cor. 6:5; 2 Cor. 10:12).
Jude speaks about the false teachers of the first century. He recalls how Enoch had spoken of how the wicked of his day were destroyed in the flood: “Behold the Lord came with ten thousands of his holy ones to execute judgment” (Jude 14,15 RV). And yet Jude says that “To these also [i.e. the first century false teachers] Enoch…prophesied” (Jude 14 RV). Enoch’s words were primarily addressed to his own generation, but his words ought to be taken as speaking directly to the first century apostates. In similar vein, the Lord said that Isaiah’s words to his generation were prophesy “of you” in the first century. “This people…” were not to be understood as only Isaiah’s hearers, but all who read this living word (Mt. 15:7,8). And so this is in the end how to study the Bible- to let it speak to you.
Discuss With Others
Discussing Scripture with others has been invaluable in my own experience of Bible study and theological work. Particularly is it valuable to discuss with Christians and even non-believers who come from a totally different culture from your own. Thus discussion of the parables of the lost in Lk. 15 with Middle Eastern peasants raises a number of issues which few Western expositors have hit on- e.g. the ways in which the elder son's refusal to attend the banquet was such an insult to the father, the way an older man never runs in public and humiliates himself by doing so. The problem is, we come to Scripture through the lenses of our own culture and background. Leslie Newbigin, a lifetime missionary in India, commented: "We do not see the lenses of our spectacles; we see through them, and it is another who has to say to us, "Friend, you need a new pair of spectacles""(1). Newbigin had something of my own experience of the value of discussing Scripture with people from other backgrounds; he speaks of the need of "the witness of those who read the Bible with minds shaped by other cultures"(2). This is not only true in a world-culture sense; but it is helpful to discuss with all manner of folk. Even though we may not agree with them, an hour spent in discussing Revelation with a JW or Paul with a radical Christian feminist who thinks Jesus is a woman... all this sows stimulation in our subsequent reflections.
(1) Leslie Newbigin, A Word In Season (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) p. 192
(2) Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel In A Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) pp. 196,197.