Bible Study: Understanding God's WordIntroduction
Members of the Kingdom of God are encouraged to know the mind of the King. The Bible is God's revelation to us; it tells us who he is and his intentions for us. If we want to grow close to Jesus then we must be people who study the Bible.
Studying the whole Bible
For Christians, the gospels are the apex of God's revelation. Yet, it is not enough to limit our study of the Bible to the gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Jesus' life and teachings are the pinnacle of God's revelation to us, but not the end. There is more. There is the record of how the teachings of Jesus affected early believers. This is called the book of Acts. There are detailed studies on the great depths of Jesus' teachings. These are called the Epistles, or letters. Most were written by Paul the apostle, such that it is usually said that Paul is the interpreter of Jesus. The reason these letters were preserved by the early Christians, alongside the gospels, and finally bound into the book we call the Bible, is that all agreed they were inspired, i.e., God had directed their composition - God saw to it that what was written was truth.
Then there is the Old Testament. Here we find the inspired record of God's dealings with the ancient people of Israel. The first part of the Old Testament is the history section called "the Law", the first five books of the Bible. Then there is the section called the Prophets which contains more history of the people of Israel as well as the writings of the prophets. Then there is the Writings which is made up of prophetic works, poetry (Psalms) and wisdom literature (Proverbs, Job...) In the Old Testament we find the first written account of God's revelation to the human race. At first, it is a simple picture, but as time goes on God builds upon these simple basic truths until finally, in the Son of God, Jesus, he reveals the complete picture. Therefore, if we are to understand what Jesus is saying we must have a good idea of the basic truths recorded in the Old Testament.
Bible study methods
There are two basic approaches:
i] The systematic method. Taking a book at a time, we work through it thinking about each truth we come across. In this way we are not likely to concentrate on our pet ideas. Using Scripture Union notes or a Commentary is an excellent personal method - best to use "Tyndale" Commentaries or "The New Bible Commentary" I.V.P. Digital studies via the internet are increasingly used today, eg., Speak Life on Facebook. Often the preaching at church is systematic. This is usually called "expository preaching". The minister either takes a book from the Bible, or follows the three-year series of readings from the Lectionary, and gives a series of sermons. Key passages are selected as the Bible books are systematically covered. Each passage is carefully expounded, the central truth and subordinate truths exposed and then applied to the life of the congregation.
ii] The topical method. Here we chase through the whole Bible looking at all cases which relate to a certain theme, idea or topic. The topical, or thematic method, is useful, but we have to be careful that it doesn't become an excuse for our own pet theories. Some topical subjects are as follows:-
a) Theology - e.g., the end of the world or Church (eschatology).
b) Ethics - moral issues.
c) Apologetics - answers to difficult questions. e.g., the problem of evil.
d) Comparative religions - what other denominations believe and how these beliefs fit with the Bible.
There are a number of books which can be very helpful in a topical study of the Bible. There is the Lion "Handbook to the Bible" and "Handbook of Christian Belief". One of the best books of all is the "New Bible Dictionary". This is a must for our library.
Requirements for understanding the Bible
i] Faith and prayer. When we read the Bible we must believe that it is God's truth to us and that God will make those truths known to us as we read. He has promised to "teach us all things" and so we need to come to the scriptures prayerfully, expecting him to make his will known to us.
ii] Teachers of the Word. The Bible is a very profound book and so God has seen to it that gifted teachers are at our disposal to unlock its truths. Bible teachers might do their work through a book, eg. Scripture Union notes, or through a sermon, or a Bible study. The teacher does not dictate to us what we must believe, rather they expose the truths contained in the Bible, and we must do the rest.
iii] A supportive Church. A church is a gathering of two of more believers. Left to ourselves, the chances are we will not properly understand the Bible, or how its truths apply to us. Jesus said that when two or three Christians meet that he would be present to direct the group's search for truth. Therefore, when a group of Christians meet to study God's Word (the Bible), Jesus will speak to that group through the scriptures via the teacher. When the group, after discussion, decides on the truth revealed, they can be sure it is God's truth for them today.
Aids for understanding the Bible
i] A good Bible translation. One of the most popular translation around at present is the New International Version (NIV - the latest update is NIV11).
ii] A systematic reading method. There are two ways to tackle this. First, it is helpful to familiarize yourself with the contents of the Bible as a whole. Give yourself at least a year to do that, and at the most, three years. There are some study aids available to help you in such a project. Second, when you have completed this project, develop the habit of reading a passage each day. Using Scripture Union notes is a good way to go.
iii] The hearing of sermons, attending a Bible Study, and the reading of good biblical studies.
iv] Systematic Bible aids. "The New Bible Commentary" is a very good aid - use it to prepare for your Bible studies.
v] Topical Bible study aids; as already listed.
vi] Bible introductions. These give a run-down on how the books came about and a summary of contents, e.g., The Lion "Handbook to the Bible".
vii] Bible backgrounds. These give a run-down on the life and times of the Bible period. It is important to understand the environment within which the Bible was written.
Interpreting the Bible
The Bible is the Word of God when rightly interpreted. Over the years many strange groups have evolved through wrongly interpreting the Bible: they pick verses willy-nilly out of the Bible without considering the context; they read verses from the poetry sections as though they were literal/historical prose; they take narrative stories and demand we do exactly the same as this or that Bible hero; they take promises and commands made to certain people in times gone by and lay them straight onto people today. The Bible is not a magical book, it is a piece of literature which, when rightly interpreted, reveals God's truths for us today.
Having said all this, don't be put off reading it; most of the Bible is straightforward. Simply read it, and what God has to say to you will be quite clear. This is especially so of the New Testament. The Old Testament certainly does contain some pitfalls, but at this stage, if you read it as background to the New Testament you won't get led astray.
Steps in interpreting the Bible
Miles Coverdale suggested the following rules of interpretation. "It shall greatly helpe ye to understand scripture, if thou mark not only what is spoken or wrytten, but of whom, and to whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goeth before and what followeth."
The following three steps will help you work out most of the important truths of the Bible.
i] When reading a passage, the first thing to work out is - what was the meaning the writer intended for the passage? What point is he making? What truth does he want to teach? To discover this, note the following -
a) Compare different translations of the Bible passage.
b) Check out the context of the passage and understand its place in the total argument. Paragraph divisions give the basic units for study.
c) Try to understand something of the background of the passage to be studied, e.g., historical setting, why was the book written? etc.
d) Note what type of literature it is - Prose, Poetry, Allegory, Apocalyptic .....
ii] When the writer's point is understood it is then necessary to look for the timeless truths directed to all people in all ages. In some cases this is not easy (that's why ministers train to interpret the Bible), but mostly the timeless truth sticks out like a sore thumb. Look at John 3:16 and note how its truth applies to all people at all times.
iii] Finally, think out how the timeless truth applies to you.
With more difficult passages it is necessary to apply "Biblical Theological Analysis", but this is a very technical method used by trained theologians.
Dangers when interpreting the Bible
i] Although "all scripture is profitable for teaching", never undervalue the role of your teachers in understanding truth, Eph.4:11-13.
ii] Interpretation by analogy. Don't be tempted to read New Testament truth back into the Old Testament by means of analogy. This is sometimes called spiritualizing, eg., In the book of Joshua Rahab is saved by the red cord of Christ's blood.
iii] Interpretation by association. Don't be tempted to parallel the situation of God's people in the past with your own, e.g., Let David's faith be ours (but not his adultery!).
iv] With narrative stories in the Bible, remember an "is" is not an "ought" - a description is not a prescription.
v] Promises and commands made to certain people at certain times are not necessarily a promise or command to us.
Gauge your attention to Bible study and consider how it could be improved