How To Study The Bible: Read It
Any series on “How To Study The Bible” has to start with the most basic “how to” and that is – read your Bible and read it a lot.
The apostle Paul, writing to the church of Christ in Ephesus, said that they could understand his knowledge in the gospel of Christ by reading what he wrote (Eph. 3:3, 4). When Jesus was questioned about His actions and His teaching, He commonly replied by asking if the questioner had read God’s word on the matter. He responded to questions about things like the Sabbath, marriage and divorce, His Deity, His fulfillment of the Old Testament, the resurrection, the destruction of Jerusalem, His rejection by the Jews, how to treat neighbors, etc., by asking “have you not read?” (Matt. 12:3; 5:21, 27; 12:5; 19:4; 21:16; 21:42; 22:31; 24:15; Mark 2:25, 26; 12:10; 12:26; 13:14; Luke 4:16; 6:3; 10:26; etc.).
The word translated “read” in these passages very often means more than just seeing the words on the page and knowing the words spelled out there. It means understanding what is written. When Jesus asked, “have you not read?” He was asking them if they knew, understood, what the Scriptures taught on the subject of these various questions.
As we talk about “How To Study The Bible” we have to start with the actual reading of the Bible. Jesus’, and the biblical writer’s, use of the word read shows that when we read our Bibles we must read it with an intention to understand what it says and how what it says applies to our lives today. He expects us to understand His word! “Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:17, NKJV)
Here are some tips for reading your Bible that will help you in your daily Bible study:
1) Read your Bible every day. Set aside some time every day to spend just reading your Bible – as distraction free as possible. If you can make it the same time every day and make it a regular routine then it will become a good habit that you’ll be more likely to keep up with. Even if its hard to make it the same time every day, most everyone can find some time every day to spend reading.
2) Pray before you read. Begin your reading by thanking God for His word and asking for His blessings through the study of His word (Ps. 119:10-12).
3) Read with the intention of understanding what you read. Sometimes it helps to read out loud so you can also hear what is being read. This will also help you keep focused on what you’re reading. If you read something that you don’t understand, write it down so you can look it up and study it later. Use a good dictionary to look up words you don’t know. Write down questions about the text that come up while you’re reading and then study to answer those questions. Add your answers to your notes on that passage. When you re-read the passage later you will remember your study and have a better understanding of what you read.
4) Read in context. This may be one of the most important parts of reading with understanding. To have a good understanding of what you read you must know (as much as possible) who is writing, who they are writing to, when it was written, the purpose for the writing, etc. So many of the religious errors are a direct result of not reading in context. Because this is such an important principle, we’ll have an article about “context” specifically.
As you read your Bible and have questions, please do not hesitate to call on me for help. I look forward to answering any questions you may have.
How To Study The Bible: Desire It
To study the Bible with any real benefit, a person must desire to learn what the Bible says. So many of the religious errors today are the result of wanting to make the Bible say what a person already believes, rather than just studying the Bible to see what it actually does say. For example, if a person already believes that salvation is by faith only then they will read the Bible through a tinted lens that supports what they already believe. Even when they read a passage like James 2:24, “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only,” they will read it in a way to agree with what they already believe. To study the Bible for just what the Bible says, we have to put away any preconceived ideas and study it with a desire to just know what it says.
Another example of this is the person who only studies the Bible to find fault with it. When I was a young Christian I knew a man that could quote passages of Scripture better than a lot of preachers. He knew the books of the Bible and what they said. He was very good at giving the perception of having spent a lot of time in the study of the Bible. However, he used his supposed knowledge of the Bible to try and turn people away from the Bible. He would quote passages that seemed to contradict one another to try and show that the Bible was unreliable. He would quote harsh punishments recorded in the Bible to try and show that God was unjust and capricious. He even had a little trick he would do with Palm 46 where he would have you count 46 words down from the top, “shake,” and then 46 words up from the bottom, “spear,” and then he would say, “see, that’s who wrote the Bible – Shakespeare.” I’ve often thought about that. Not the trick, but the fact that this guy knew what the Bible said so well that he could come up with a trick like that, and yet he had no clue what the Bible actually taught. All he knew was the words on the page, not the meaning of them. That’s because he didn’t study the Bible with a desire to understand it. He didn’t care what it taught so he didn’t try to understand it.
I noticed some of the comments made to the article I wrote a few weeks ago, about Christianity being the religion of peace. Those comments quoted passages of warfare from the Old Testament and figurative language of Christ concerning division. They knew the words of the Bible well enough to quote those passages but, with no knowledge of the true meaning, quoted them wrongly. They quoted those passages as though God was the cause of the warfare and division rather than with the understanding that warfare and division are the result of man’s rejection of God. They read the Bible with the desire to blame God rather than understand God.
There is a big difference in knowing what the Bible says and knowing what the Bible teaches. And, one of the biggest determining factors for knowing what it teachers, rather than just knowing what it says, is the desire to understand and learn the word of God.
Jesus said, “If any will do His will, he shall know the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of Myself” (Jn. 7:17). That is, if a person has the desire to obey God then he will be able to study and know the teaching of God. It’s the same thing He referred to as hungering and thirsting for righteousness (Matt. 5:6). That person who desires righteousness, like a hunger and thirst, will be filled with the knowledge of righteousness. They will be able to study and truly learn the will of God!
Notice the importance Proverbs 2 places on our desire to know God’s word. We must “receive” it as a “treasure” (Prov. 2:1). It is something to “incline” our ear and “apply” our heart to (Prov. 2:2). We must “cry out” and “lift up” our voice for it (Prov. 2:3). We must “seek” and “search” for it (Prov. 2:4). “Then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:5). In short, we have to desire to know the Bible to get anything out of our study of the Bible.
How To Study The Bible: Harmonize It
The Bible is truth. Jesus said, in prayer to the heavenly Father, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (John 17:17). Truth does not contradict truth!
As we’ve been looking at the basic principles for how to study your Bible, this is the third important principle. That is, first we have to read it, and read it a lot. Second, we have to read it with a desire to know what it truly teaches. Now, third, we have to harmonize everything it says on any given subject.
The Bible wasn’t written like an encyclopedia, where you can look up any given subject and read it all in a single section. The Bible was written in many different genres, by several different writers, over a long period of time. So, in order to reach an informed conclusion on any given biblical subject, we have to search the Bible for everywhere it speaks on that subject. Then, and only then, can we harmonize the information and truly know what the Bible teaches on that subject.
The doctrine of salvation is the most important example of that. There are many, many different ideas of what the Bible teaches about how to be saved. Some say that salvation is by faith only. Others say that salvation is by faith only through grace only. Others say that there is nothing you can do to be saved, the Holy Spirit has to do it for you. You could get almost as many different answers to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” as people you ask. The reason for that is people aren’t harmonizing the information in the Bible on the subject of salvation. They are picking passages here and there based on what they already believe. Many people base their doctrine on a selective reading of the Bible instead of a harmony of everything the Bible teaches on that subject.
Many will go to Acts 16:31, and quote what Paul told the Philippian jailor, without going on to read how the jailor responded to what Paul told him. They say verse 31 teaches “faith only salvation” even though the text goes on to say that the jailor heard Paul preach the gospel (Acts 16:32), that the jailor showed his repentance by washing their wounds (Acts 16:33), and that they were baptized (Acts 16:33). It only says that the jailor did what Paul told him to do in verse 31 after he had done the things recorded in verses 32-33 (Acts 16:34).
When people attempt to teach that salvation is by “faith only” they actually cause a contradiction with other clear passages of Scripture. “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). The only time in the entire Bible that the term “faith only” is used it says “not by faith only”! The use of that term for how people are saved is the direct result of failing to harmonize everything the Bible says about salvation.
When the Bible is harmonized on the subject it becomes clear that salvation isn’t by anything “only.” It is always a combination of grace plus faith plus works (Hebrews 11:1-7). Every example of salvation in the Bible has that common formula. That’s the conclusion based on the harmony of the Scriptures on the subject of salvation.
For the salvation of man today it is a combination of grace plus faith plus works. God extended His grace through the scheme of redemption, the gospel (Titus 2:11-13). We must have faith in God’s scheme of redemption (Heb. 11:6; Acts 8:12). Based on that faith in the gospel of Christ, we must obey the gospel (Rom. 1:5; 16:26; 6:17, 3-5). That’s grace plus faith plus works.
We call this kind of study, that harmonizes all of Scripture on any given subject, inductive Bible study. Before we can come to a conclusion on any biblical subject we must gather all the information and harmonize what it says. Then, and only then, can we know that what we believe is God’s will on that matter.
A fairly simple example of how this works is found in the account of Jesus’ arrest. In Mark 14:46, we learn that “one of those who stood by” cut off an ear of “the servant of the high priest.” Who struck what servant? It says in Luke 22:50 that “one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear.” From that we know that the one who cut off the ear was one of Jesus’ disciples, and that he cut off the “right ear” of “the servant of the high priest.” Matthew 26:50 confirms it was a disciple by saying it was “one of those who were with Jesus” that cut of the servant’s ear. We still don’t have all the information though. Which disciple and what servant? In John 18:10, it says that the disciple was “Simon Peter” and the servant of the high priest was “Malchus.” Now we know all the information.
Though this is a simple illustration it shows how importance it is to harmonize all the information. Using this as an example we see what frequently happens in Bible study that leads to false conclusions. Someone just reading Mark 14:47 might make the assumption that the one who cut off the servant’s ear was Simon the Zealot, not Simon Peter. After all, the Zealots were a sect of rebels fighting against the Romans. That’s probably why he had a sword to begin with and why he would have been so quick to attack the servant of the high priest. Makes sense, right? But its wrong!
People make the same kinds of assumptions on much more important subjects. For example, people will read a single statement made by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:17 and conclude that Paul didn’t believe baptism was necessary for salvation. They fail to harmonize the statement “Christ did not send me to baptize” with anything else Paul said on the subject of baptism. Paul also wrote in Romans 6:3 that baptism is into Christ, into His death, and that we are raised from baptism in newness of life. In Galatians 3:27, Paul wrote that we are “baptized into Christ.” He says, in the very same passage where he made the statement about Christ not sending him to baptize, that he did baptize several people (1 Corinthians 1:14-16). So, clearly, when he said that Christ did not send him to baptize, he wasn’t saying that baptism was not necessary (cf. Eph. 4:5; Col. 2:12). By harmonizing all the information we clearly see that Paul taught the necessity of baptism everywhere he went (Acts 16:15, 33; 18:8; 19:5; 22:16).
The example of 1 Corinthians 1:17 also leads us to the next principle of effective Bible study, we must study it in context. To accurately understand what Paul meant when he said, “Christ did not send me to baptize,” we have to study it in the context in which it was said.
How The Study The Bible: Respect It
One of the biggest problems with Bible study, in most denominational systems, is a lack of respect for context. In previous articles I used Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 1:17 as an example of how important it is to harmonize everything the Bible says on a subject before making a conclusion on any given doctrine. By harmonizing everything the Bible says about baptism it becomes clear that Paul was not discounting the importance of baptism. The principle of harmonizing everything the Bible teaches on a subject is one way of respecting context. It is the broadest form of context, that is, the overall context of everything the Bible says on the subject. So we have already been talking about context, in a broad way, in the past two articles. Now we’ll look more specifically at the principle of respecting the context in our Bible study.
The word “context” means, “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea; the parts that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning” (Oxford English Dictionary). There are different kinds of context but, regarding Bible study, we are primarily concerned with Historical Context and Literary Context. The historical context has to do with the historical setting of the writing. For example, knowing the historical setting of the early church’s persecution helps to understand many of Paul’s statements (Eph. 6:20; 1 Cor. 7:26; cf. Heb. 12:4; etc.). The book of Hebrews is much easier to understand when harmonized with the historical context of the early Jewish Christians being tempted to return to Judaism (cf. Heb. 6:1-3). The more we can know about the historical setting from which a biblical book was written to better aided we are in understanding that book. We should begin the study of any biblical book by answering, as best we can, the following questions: 1) Who wrote it? 2) To whom was it written? 3) When was it written? 4) What was going on with the writer and the audience at the time it was written? 5) How does this relate to the purpose of the book being written? All of these things pertain to the historical context and greatly aid in having a good understanding of any biblical text.
Literary context is broken into three levels. We’ve already seen the broadest of these levels when we discussed harmonizing everything the Bible says on a subject. This is Overall Context – what the whole Bible says about it. The Overall Context is actually the last step of examining context. Contextual study begins, naturally, with the Immediate Context – the immediate sentence or paragraph. We have to begin with the immediate passage we’re studying. Then, after we have studied the words in the immediate context of their sentences and paragraphs, we broaden out a little further to the Remote Context. The Remote Context is what the whole book says on a subject. So, we go from the immediate passage to the book as a whole. Once we know that our understanding of a passage is in harmony with the immediate context (sentence and paragraph), we look to see that it is in harmony with the remote context (the whole book). Then we move out again to the entire Bible and make sure that our understanding of a passage is in harmony with the overall context of the entire Bible. If we run into a contradiction at any level of context then we know that our understanding of a passage is not correct. We must go back and study it again and respect the context on all levels. By studying in this way we could eliminate so much of the religious division that exists today.
As we conclude this brief series of articles on “How To Study The Bible,” I will use 1 Corinthians 1:17 as an example of putting all the principles we have looked at into practice.
“For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.” (1 Corinthians 1:17)
Paul’s statement about Christ not sending him to baptize certainly has to be harmonized with his being chosen to do the work of an apostle (cf. Acts 9:15; 22:21; 23:11; 26:17-18). His work as an apostle was to preach the gospel of Christ to the Gentile world. Understanding who it is that is speaking here, i.e. the apostle Paul, is part of the historical context that will help to understand the passage. His preaching was inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21; 2 Tim. 3:16), “not with the wisdom of words.” Knowing to whom Paul was writing is also part of the historical context. He was writing to the church of Christ at Corinth, planted during his missionary trip recorded in Acts 18:1-17. The time of the writing is also important. Paul wrote this letter from Ephesus about four or five years after the church in Corinth was planted (ca. 54-55 AD). That is significant because Paul was writing to a very young congregation dealing with the kinds of problems new converts experience. There is a lot more to the historical context that is important to the study of the book, and passage, that we don’t have room for here. However, for a good study of the historical setting at the time the letter was written good Bible dictionaries and/or encyclopedias are very helpful.
Going from the historical context to the literary context, we begin with the immediate context of the verse, the paragraph in which it is found (1 Cor. 1:14-17). Paul says that he is thankful that he hadn’t baptized any of the Corinthians except those few he recounts in the passage. That shows that there was some problem with those addressed, apart from the exceptions, and we need to broaden our contextual examination to see what that problem was. Backing up to the previous paragraph (1 Cor. 1:10-13), we are still in the immediate context of the statement. In this paragraph, Paul is pleading with those in Corinth that had been reported as being contentious to not have any divisions among them. Also, the contention is described as being divided over who baptized them. Christ is not divided and His disciples must not be divided! So, right here in the immediate context we see that Paul is dealing with an issue where Christians were being divided over who baptized them and such division was wrong. That is why Paul says he was thankful that he hadn’t personally baptized more of them than he did. He didn’t want anyone saying “I am of Paul.” The immediate context of the passage continues through chapter four, as these chapters share the common theme of divisions in the church (cf. 1 Cor. 3:3-4; 4:6).
Apparently, there were those in Corinth that were creating factions based on who baptized them. In 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul was telling them that it didn’t matter who baptized them. He did not mean in any way that baptism was not part of the gospel of Christ (cf. Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:3, 4; Gal. 3:26, 27; 1 Pet. 3:21; et. al.). There is nothing in the remote context of the book that puts any significance, whatsoever, on who does the baptizing. But there is remote context placing a great deal of importance on the necessity of baptism (1 Cor. 12:13; 15:29). Broadening again, to the overall context of the Bible, there is nothing anywhere in the Bible that places any significance on who does the baptizing. However, there is a great deal of importance placed on the necessity of baptism throughout the New Testament (see the above cited passages).
The main cause of false doctrine is a failure to practice the principles of good Bible study. People don’t read the Bible, so they just accept what others tell them the Bible teaches. Even when they do read the Bible, they read it with preconceived notions, having already made up their mind on what they believe. So they’re not reading with a desire to know what it says. Because they already have their mind made up on what they believe, they will use passages out of context to support what they already believe. Let us all read our Bibles, using good Bible study principles, to know just what God wants and expects of us, to His glory!