The Bible seems like a confusing, intimidating tome full of ancient, mysterious knowledge. But it doesn’t take a “PhD” to understand and we don’t have to be intimidated! In fact, here are seven simple keys for making the Bible plain and unlocking it for use in your life.
HOW TO STUDY YOUR BIBLE
by Richard F. Ames
You probably own a Bible. But have you truly studied it? If you do not know how to study your Bible, it will remain a mystery to you, and you will miss out on the most exciting, mind-expanding information and knowledge the world has ever known!
More than 100 million Bibles are sold annually around the world. But does anyone really understand the Bible? Can you understand it? In this article, we will discuss seven simple yet vital principles to help you in studying this amazing book.
If you are a long-time reader of Tomorrow's World, you probably read the Bible often. But how many others do? The Barna Research Group reported that, in 2005, just 45 percent of Americans read the Bible in a typical week. Bible reading has declined in recent decades. When a nation reads the word of God, and practices its precepts, it will prosper. But great neglect of the Bible and its teachings will continue to produce moral decline—and eventual national destruction.
Daniel Webster, the great American statesman, gave this warning about his nation's future: "If there is anything in my thoughts or style to commend, the credit is due to my parents for instilling in me an early love of the Scriptures. If we abide by the principles taught in the Bible, our country will go on prospering and to prosper; but if we and our posterity neglect its instructions and authority, no man can tell how sudden a catastrophe may overwhelm us and bury all our glory in profound obscurity" (Halley's Bible Handbook, p. 18).
We in the western world need to take Webster's warning very seriously. We need to study the Bible, and to live by it. As Jesus said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God'" (Luke 4:4). Only obedience to, and a love of, God's word can lead to moral and national prosperity.
Do you love the Bible? Ancient King David loved the scriptures that were available to him. He said, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Psalm 119:105). We all need that lamp and light!
How can studying God's word benefit you? First of all, we need to understand that the Bible is the most important book in the world! It reveals the true meaning and purpose of life. It gives principles for true success, fulfillment and happiness. It explains why our world is in such confusion and danger. Its prophecies reveal the future, including the soon-coming Kingdom of God on this earth. It tells us how to prepare for the great events to come. Scripture teaches us how to get along with our neighbors in a godly way. And it reveals the way to life beyond death—eternal life.
We cannot afford to live without the incredible spiritual truths and benefits the Bible has to offer. A Gallup Poll found that 82 percent of those surveyed in the United States call the Bible the "actual" or "inspired" word of God. Only 68 percent of Canadians shared these views.
But even among those who say they believe the Bible, their knowledge of its content leaves much to be desired. We might expect that religious people would know the first four books of the New Testament. But another Gallup Poll reported that 63 percent of Americans could not name all four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Commentator Gary M. Burge emphasizes the vital role Scripture must play in helping us discern truth from error. In a Christianity Today article, he reminded us: "To disregard this resource—to neglect the Bible—is to remove the chief authority on which our faith is built. We are left vulnerable, unable to check the teachings of those who invite us to follow" ("The Greatest Story Never Read," August 9, 1999).
We need to be grounded in sound, foundational truths! We do not dare "remove the chief authority on which our faith is built." The solution to the problem is obvious. We must read the Bible!
When was the last time you opened your Bible? If you are a frequent reader of this magazine, it might have been just a few minutes ago. But according to the above-mentioned Gallup Poll, 41 percent of Americans said that they rarely or never read the Bible! Only 16 percent said that they read the Bible every day. But we all should read the Bible daily. Bible truths and Bible knowledge contribute to sound-mindedness—and the world needs men, women, and children of wholesome character and sound mental health!
The Bible is a storehouse of valuable treasure. How can we reap the treasures contained in this amazing book? Regarding true knowledge, the Bible promises us, "If you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding" (Proverbs 2:4–6).
In this article, we will consider seven basic principles for Bible study. They will help you gain God's wisdom. You can grasp more clearly the amazing plan the Creator God has for all humanity, if you use these keys to unlock vital truths of the Bible, which relatively few understand.
Principle 1: The Bible Is A Complete Book
Many cannot truly understand the Bible because they throw out its first 39 books—the Old Testament. Yet, when Jesus quoted scripture, He quoted the Old Testament. In the wilderness, during His tremendous spiritual battle with Satan the devil, Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 when He said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God'" (Luke 4:4). That profound truth is absolutely foundational to people's happiness—and their eternal life!
The Apostle Paul, writing to the young Timothy, spoke of the genuine faith that he saw in Timothy's grandmother Lois and in his mother Eunice. These two virtuous women had taught Timothy the scriptures from his childhood. And what were those scriptures? The first 39 books of the Bible! The New Testament had not yet been written. As Paul reminded Timothy, "from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15). Timothy was able to understand salvation through the Old Testament scriptures, and through accepting Jesus Christ as his Savior.
The Bible is a complete book. It begins in the book of Genesis and ends with the book of Revelation. In fact, God warns: "For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book" (Revelation 22:18–19). Be wary of anyone who tells you that some other book is "a hidden part of the Bible" or is "necessary for understanding the Bible."
Never forget that when Jesus taught us the two great commandments, He quoted them from the Old Testament! The first great commandment, that we must love God with all our heart, soul and strength, is written in Deuteronomy 6:5. The second great commandment, that you shall love your neighbor as yourself, is from Leviticus 19:18. Jesus was not making up something new when He gave these commandments; they are Old Testament precepts, and are commandments of God!
Truly, we cannot understand God's plan unless we study the whole Bible as the word of God. To understand the Bible, we must read both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
The Bible is God's gift to all humanity. Do we really treasure it as we should? If we do, we really need to study the Bible regularly. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln made this statement about the Bible: "I believe the Bible is the best gift God has ever given to man. All the good from the Saviour of the world is communicated to us through this book" (Halley's Bible Handbook, p. 18).
Principle 2: The Bible Is Always Relevant
Some people believe that since the Bible was completed about 1,900 years ago, it cannot be relevant for us today. That belief is wrong! As this magazine has demonstrated in dozens of articles over the years, not only is the Bible relevant for us today, but its prophecies also reveal humanity's future and our amazing destiny. The good news is that human beings will not completely destroy themselves. Jesus Christ will return at the most dangerous point in human history to save us from ourselves. Yes, we look forward to the end of this "present evil world"—the end of this age and the beginning of a new age, which we in this magazine call "Tomorrow's World." Jesus said, "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come" (Matthew 24:14). The gospel of the Kingdom of God is always relevant!
The Gallup organization discovered that 65 percent of Americans agree that the Bible "answers all or most of the basic questions of life." Yes, the Bible is relevant—it does answer life's most basic questions!
A Barna Research Online study found, "Among households which own a Bible, the typical count is three Bibles per household." And, "almost every household in America (92 percent) owns at least one copy of the Christian Bible. This includes most homes in which the adults are not practicing Christians as well as the homes of hundreds of thousands of atheists."
If there are any atheists reading this article, I challenge you to open your Bible, if you have one, and simply read it! I think you will be amazed at the plain and solid precepts for successful living that you will find. Do you doubt Jesus Christ? Just start reading the book of Matthew, then read the other three accounts of His life on planet Earth (Mark, Luke and John). Read their eyewitness testimony and evidence with an open mind. And if you live in one of those households with three Bibles or more, encourage every member of your family to read the Bible. It can profoundly change your life for the better!
Principle 3: The Bible Interprets The Bible
We have discussed this principle in previous articles, and it is vital. Depending on how you count it, between one-fourth and one-third of your Bible is prophecy. But how can you understand the symbolic language it often uses? For example, the books of Daniel and Revelation are rich with mysterious imagery that very few today understand. But if you understand this vital principle, that the Bible interprets itself, you can understand it!
In previous articles, we have discussed examples of symbolism in the book of Revelation. Notice the stars mentioned in Revelation 1:20; these symbolize the angels of the seven churches. The seven lampstands symbolize the seven churches. In Revelation 17, we read that the Apostle John saw, in vision, a beast ridden by a harlot. John wrote, "And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns" (v. 3). She is called, "MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH" (v. 5). Verse 6 declares that this woman persecutes true Christians.
How are we to understand all this? The verses that follow give us the meaning of the symbols. Verse 12, for example, reveals the meaning of the ten horns of the beast: "The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast."
These are just a few examples of how the Bible will interpret its own symbols.
Sometimes the Bible will use a symbolic word, but perhaps the explanation is not right there in a following verse. When this occurs, remember a fourth principle:
Principle 4: Study All The Scriptures On A Topic
Bible students—and teachers—who fail to apply this principle often end up believing false and misleading doctrines. Take, for example, the controversy often described as "law or grace." Does God's grace mean that a Christian can live a life of rampant sin and blatantly disobey his Savior? Of course not! As Jesus said, "But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17). Jesus then went on to mention several of the Ten Commandments.
Remember, the Bible does not contradict itself. Jesus said, "The Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). God's grace does not give us permission to transgress God's law. The Apostle Jude warned about false teachers who would "change the grace of our God into a license for immorality" (Jude 4, NIV). As the Anchor Bible Dictionary states, "Paul clarified that God's grace brings liberty from sin and not liberty to sin." ("Antinomianism," Vol. 1, p. 263). You can read this for yourself in Romans 6:1–2.
Some careless Bible students wrongly take Ephesians 2:15 to mean that God's Ten Commandments and His moral law are done away for Christians. That verse reads: "having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances." But if we look closely at that verse, we see that the word translated as "ordinances"—which is dogma, in the Greek—refers to the man-made laws which many Jews of Jesus' day had used to cause division between themselves and Gentiles. The principle is to study all the Bible's references on a topic, so we can be sure we understand it. Notice what the authors of the NIV Study Bible have written about that verse. "Since Mt. 5:17 and Ro. 3:31 teach that God's moral standard expressed in the Old Testament law is not changed by the coming of Christ, what is abolished here is probably the effect of the specific 'commandments and regulations' in separating Jews from Gentiles, whose nonobservance of the Jewish law renders them ritually unclean."
Remember our first principle of Bible study: "The Bible Is a Complete Book." The NIV Study Bible commentary is consistent with this principle, recognizing that Christ fulfilled—rather than abolished—the same law that He, as the God of the Old Testament, had proclaimed (Exodus 20; 1 Corinthians 10:1–5).
Study the scriptures in both the Old and New Testaments of your Bible. Then, to be sure you have a clear grasp of Bible truths, be sure you have understood all the scriptures on the topic you are studying. When you do that diligently and honestly, you will often find that the "mainstream" teaching on a topic does not match what the Bible actually says.
Principle 5: Understand The Context
When you study all the scriptures on a topic, go a little further. Read all the scriptures around a verse you are studying. For example, some mistakenly believe that the Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15 abolished the Ten Commandments for the Gentiles. But notice the Apostle James' decision: "Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood" (Acts 15:20).
When the Apostles specified these four prohibitions, did that free the Gentiles to sin in other ways? Could they transgress the commandment that says, "You shall not kill"? Or that, "You shall not have other gods before the true God"? Of course not! The Apostles in no way repealed the moral law of God. To understand this, we need to read and understand the context of these verses. What was the main question in dispute? "And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved'" (Acts 15:1).
The issue in Acts 15 was circumcision. The Jerusalem Conference decided that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised in order to be saved. The Apostle Paul later wrote to the Corinthian Gentiles, "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters" (1 Corinthians 7:19).
Does this challenge your preconceived ideas about this verse and its meaning? Too often, preachers avoid sound explanation of Scripture in order to focus on emotional and devotional perspectives that are incomplete. As commentator Burge wrote in his above-mentioned Christianity Today article, "Historical exegesis is fast becoming a lost art in the pulpit. Rather than explaining the historical setting of the passage, texts become springboards for devotional reflection. Biblical passages are taken out of context as the preacher searches for those stories that evoke the responses or attitudes desired."
Be sure to understand the context by reading all the scriptures around whatever verses you are studying. Apply this principle, and you can avoid the pitfall Burge describes.
Principle 6: Prove All Things
We often challenge our readers to open their Bibles and check up on what we write. Do not take for granted what we publish in this magazine. Read it in your own Bible. Christians are admonished: "Test all things; hold fast what is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Or: "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (KJV).
Notice the attitude of the Bereans, who are commended for their positive, investigative attitude in reading the scriptures. "These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11).
One way of testing, or proving, is to practice the principles and precepts of the Bible. Jesus emphasized that we must live by the Bible, by "every word of God." He said, "But why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do the things which I say?" (Luke 6:46). You can prove and test the Bible by practicing its instructions. That is how you can have a good understanding. We read: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments" (Psalm 111:10). Perhaps you have heard teachers talk about "learning by doing"? This principle also applies in your Christian life.
Principle 7: Pray For Understanding
This principle is the foundation on which the first six principles rest. The Bible emphasizes that we need a teachable attitude. Ancient King David was a man after God's own heart (Acts 13:22). Notice David's teachable attitude in praying for understanding. "Show me Your ways, O Lord; teach me Your paths. Lead me in Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; on You I wait all the day" (Psalm 25:4–5).
Remember to pray for understanding as you read and study your Bible. Pray for guidance. God blesses those who respect the scriptures and reverence His holy word. Almighty God states, "But on this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word" (Isaiah 66:2).
The Bible is the most important book in the world. If you have neglected reading the Bible, now is the time to change. Read it daily. If your attitude is right, you will be greatly blessed and your life will be changed. As Jesus said, "The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:63).
The Bible is not only a book for today, but it is also the book of the future! As Jesus said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away" (Luke 21:33). Thank God that He has shared with us His awesome spiritual truth, and the very purpose of life.
Adapted from “How To Study Your Bible” from www.TomorrowsWorld.org.