Why and How to Study the Bible
The following is a sermon I delivered Sunday morning (October 29, 2006) at Christian Tabernacle (Houston, TX). I was preaching a short segment on “How to Study the Bible” in the New Member’s Orientation Class. This particular class revolved around Discipleship. This was my second sermon here at the church (third overall). I had only 15 minutes yet took around 35 according to one leader.
Turn with me in your handbook to page 30. I would like for you to take some time and read this at home. I will not try to guide you through it this morning since there is not much time and because I believe there are a couple of things that you should know beforehand. But I want you to keep the page opened so that you can take some notes on the back of page 29.
Do you feel like you have been cramming for a test? I mean, each week here in Orientation, you are taught truth after truth after truth. And much of these truths are so profound that they really deserve months of dedication. Their depths, while not thoroughly covered in the short moments that we are given, keep the Christian studying for hours and days on end.
This particular topic is no exception. In fact, seminaries require several years on this topic before you can graduate with even the lowest certification. This is true most likely because of its importance. Knowing how to study the Bible is not only important for the pastor and teacher, but also for the lay-Christian. So my first goal this morning is to convince you of the importance of Bible Study. I mean, why should I teach you how when you have no reason to study the Bible, right?
There is a big difference between the way you folks handle a car and my four year old son would. There is primarily two things that you have that my son does not: Know-how, and experience. I mean even those who know how to drive but have just began to drive still don’t handle the streets like we grown-ups do, right?
Being a Christian and not knowing Scripture is like being a four year old in a car. If not now, it will soon be a disaster. A young unlearned child behind the wheel of a car is a danger to himself as well to you who share the road with him. He is liable to crash injuring if not killing himself and just might take some others with him. This is how an unlearned Christian can be. He is a danger to himself and to those around him. Not because he seeks to destroy or hurt anyone, but because he lacks the knowledge of how to live. He is living on a whim. As the wind blows, he goes. He is carried along by his emotions and can easily drive himself over the edge.
So, my main objective this morning is to really convince you of the importance of Bible study. Let me see if I can do that, if that analogy did not take it all the way home already. In preparing for this, I jotted down some words that are often used to describe the Bible. These synonyms should give us some insight to the nature of Scripture:
The Word of God (Hebrews 4:12)
The Word of Truth (James 1:18)
The Gospel (2 Timothy 1:8)
The Testimony of the Lord (2 Timothy 1:8)
The Promise of Life (2 Timothy 1:1)
Starting to get the idea? Apostle Paul got the right idea. In his last letter which we call 2 Timothy, he writes about the importance of the Bible.
Just so that you get the clearest picture, Paul is writing this letter from prison. He was captured and pulled hundreds of miles to Rome where he was placed into a dark, stinky, rotten, wet, filthy prison where cracks and corners were infested with rodents and dung and urine. He was there temporarily because he was awaiting his execution. And he knew it was coming.
And instead of writing to his young protégé about his debased treatment and coming murder, he wrote to him with words of encouragement telling him to cling to the Scriptures. You see, to Paul the Bible was everything and he was nothing. It was more important that the Bible be preached than he be freed.
Turn with me in your Bible to 2 Timothy 4: 6. Listen to his words, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.”
What confidence! What a clear conscience! What a life full of purpose! Paul was not a dangerous car driver. He finished the course and finished with flying stars. So what was this course and what did he do to complete it so maturely?
Turn back a few pages to chapter 2 beginning with verse 14. He writes this to Timothy, “Remind them of these things and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”
What was the course? It was the fight of faith. It was the training of others to know the Bible. How did he finish with flying stars? He presented himself approved to God as one who accurately handles the word of truth.
From this, we have one of the most memorized verses in the entire Bible, 2 Timothy 3:16. It reads, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
Listen, Paul was one of many. He was no exception or anomaly. I don’t have time to go into more examples but just know that this high view of Scripture was not uncommon.
You want to know why the Bible is of the utmost importance? Because, it is the one true source of instruction for this life and the after. To not know it is to be like a four year old behind the wheel of a car on a mountain-top highway with one shared lane going 80 miles per hour.
Now, if that does not do the work, consider what might become of you if you did not have the Bible. Again, a list I jotted and these are a few from it:
You could not know God.
You could not know yourself.
You could not know your sin.
You could not know of Christ.
You could not be saved.
If the Bible is not that important to you than neither is your salvation. We would be utterly lost without the Bible.
Well, the fact is, we have the Bible. Unfortunately many Christians do not think so highly of it like Paul did. My hope is that you have a high view of the Bible as he did. I realize that some of you may walk away and lose what you may have gleaned from this. You may be excited about the study of the Bible for a period of time, but later will be indifferent to it. I hope that is not the case, but it usually is.
I can think of many excuses why that is. Some I battle often. One of the excuses is that the Bible is hard to understand. Would you agree with that? Some people find it very hard to comprehend what the Bible is saying. So for the remaining of our time, I want to provide you with some basic things to know when you are approaching the Bible for study and some practices that I have noticed to be very helpful.
The Bible is not a book per se. It is a collection of books or writings gathered over a four thousand year period. These writings were written by many authors, written to many recipients, written for many reasons, and written in many genres (like poetry, prophecy, narrative, and so on). And the writers wrote much like we do today. They used idioms and slang. They made comparisons and analogies. They told stories and parables.
So if it is so common to our way of writing, then why is it so difficult? Well, many Christians think of the Bible like they do a fortune cookie. Maybe they have read a chapter from Proverbs and think the whole Bible is a collection of general truths. That could be one reason.
But the main reason, and this is true even to the greatest Bible scholar, there is a wide gap between there day and our day. The people were different and were doing different things in a different time period in a different language. And so it is not so much that we cannot understand the Bible as much as it is that we misunderstand the Bible.
Now, I want to provide you with four gaps that we must close when we approach the Bible. The first is the language gap. The Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew with a few passages in Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Greek that is not the same as the Greek language today.
I have been studying the Greek language for quite some time now and I have turned to my mother-in-law with some of my questions. She is Greek and is well fluent in the Greek language. However, her Greek is not all the same as the Greek that the New Testament was written in. So there is a gap there.
For the most part, this gap is closed by those editors and translators of the Bible version that lies in your lap right now. We have a variety of Bible versions because some translations had the goal of translating word for word which is quite difficult. The King James and American Standard versions are good examples. Other translations had the goal of translating thought for thought. In other words, they wanted to get the basic idea across. Some examples are the New International Version and the New Living Translation. Then there are some translations which are better called commentaries since they are more of a paraphrase then a translation. One popular version is the Message.
We will have to save the discussion over which translation is best for Bible study for some other time. Just know that this particular gap has been closed by translations; at least for the most part.
The second gap is the culture gap. It does not deal with speech but with customs. It refers to the practices of their day. For example, when Joseph found out that his girlfriend Mary was pregnant, they were only engaged. Yet the Bible says that at first wanted to divorce her. Now that is a weird thing to us. Because you cannot divorce a person to whom you are engaged. Divorce is for married people, not engaged people. Well, the custom of that day was that engagement was more or less an unofficial marriage. It was as good as marriage is in our day.
This culture gap can be closed by familiarizing yourself with the practices of whatever era you are studying. Good study Bibles will have footnotes in the bottom to help you through this gap.
The third gap, and I know I’m rushing here. The third gap is the geographical gap; that is the geography of the time. We live here in America. We know our geography more or less. The things that you will read in the Bible have taken place across seas where you may not be familiar with. Even if you have been there, the cities and town and fields were much different. I mean, this is thousands of years ago.
A good example of this is the story of Jonah. He was vomited from a giant fish’s mouth. Many tend to believe that he just landed on the shores of Nineveh. But Nineveh was hundreds of miles away from any large bodies of water. Jonah had to travel some days after he was spat up before he arrived there. Charts and graphs can help you with this.
The fourth gap is the historical gap. It is a very important one. It deals with the question of, “What is going on during this time period?” In 2 Timothy, Paul is imprisoned unjustly. But a look into what was going on at that time helps you understand why. It also helps you understand the depth of fear and that many Christians were facing. There was an all out assault on Christians by the Roman Empire. They were killing them by the hundreds because Nero lied about them starting a fire that he started.
You can get some help in closing this gap by your Bible’s introductory pages that precede each book – that is, if you have a good study Bible. Now those are the real gaps that must be closed when studying the Bible. There are some books that can better assist you in closing these gaps. And if you want to know what they are, just pull me aside after Orientation and I’ll give some names. Some are listed on pages 31 and 32.
Now, in the last few minutes, let me see if I can provide you with some practices that may help you in your Bible study. And this is just for those who are not wanting to really purchase all of those expensive resource books. This is the majority of Christians who just desire to learn from the Bible as a way of devotions. The gaps will still be there but there are some good ways to help you otherwise.
First, read the Bible. You will never learn what the Bible says until you read it. A good practice is to read through the Old Testament each year. Most Bible have programs to do that. While you are doing that, make it your goal to read through a New Testament book each day. For example, right now I am studying 2 Timothy. And so each day, I read through the entire book. It is just four chapters and it takes me 10 – 15 minutes max.
The reason you should do this is because you become more familiar with the text each time you read it. You mind will being to capture certain verses and principles on the page. This is exceptionally good to do because the best way to interpret Scripture is to allow it to interpret itself. For example, there is some debate over where Jesus went when He died on the cross. You read a passage that says the He was absent for 3 days. Some say He went to Hell. Some say that He went to Heaven. Well, there are a few passages in other gospels that say that Jesus went to paradise or Heaven. So that confusion can be settled rather quickly. Scripture does not contradict itself.
Secondly, and this is where you are heading already – interpret what you are reading. In other words, bridge the gaps. Reading answers the question, “What does the Bible say?” and interpreting answers the question, “What does the Bible mean?” If you draw the wrong conclusions, you can essentially be obeying the wrong commands, right?
Thirdly, evaluate what you have learned. You now have know what the Bible has said and you have some idea of what Bible is meaning, now check with sources to make sure that you are drawing the correct conclusion. Pick up some commentaries from some respectable Theologians. Ask the pastors and leaders in the church. If you are concluding something that is not what others are saying than you most likely have the wrong conclusion.
Fourthly, and the hardest part of studying the Bible – applying the principles. Listen, if you are gleaning from the Scriptures but not obeying them, you are being distasteful to God. You are in fact worse than a sinner who is destined to Hell. And after all, this is why we are studying, is it not?
Lastly, you should correlate. Keep in mind what you are learning and where it is taught so that the puzzle is being formed and you are getting the big picture. Compare truths and see how they all fit into the story of Redemption. Because that is what the Bible is about – a Holy God redeeming and unholy people. If you are not forming that picture than you are not studying the Word of God.
I’m out of time. Let me close with one of my favorite memory verses. It is Jeremiah 9:23 and 24. It says this, “’Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises loving kindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,’ declares the LORD.”
Your desire as a Christian should be one in whom God is delighted. Paul calls him an approved worker. God calls him one who rightly understands Him. My prayer is that will be you.