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How to Study and Understand the Scriptures

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Samuel Smith
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LESSON 4

HOW TO STUDY AND UNDERSTAND THE SCRIPTURES

You are welcome to another edition of Insights from God's Word, a Bible study programme that is committed to sharing God's Word by allowing the Bible to speak for itself.

In this edition, we continue with our series on The Holy Scriptures. The topic for this study is: How to Study and Understand the Scriptures. The Scriptures testify concerning itself that it was given through the inspiration of God, and that it is profitable for doctrine (2 Timothy 3:16). However, despite this internal evidence, the Scripture happens to be the first among various books that is seriously misunderstood, and usually misinterpreted. One needs to only look at the numerous divergent doctrines within Christendom to appreciate this grim fact. But did God intentionally organise the Scriptures in such a way that His children will find it hard to study and understand its contents? Friends, the answer is an emphatic NO!

In fact, the Bible actually encourages each one of us to "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). But you see friends, just like any other area of specialisation, to be able to reach the ideal in the text above, one will have to apply several proven principles. Yes, there are principles that have been proven to enhance effective Bible study. And it does not matter your background; whether you are a religious professor or a high school dropout, if you rigorously follow these time-tested principles of Bible study, you are bound to understand the Bible and also appreciate its contents. Some of the proven principles of effective Bible study are as follows:

1) SEEK THE GUIDANCE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

The Bible is different from many other books. Even though it may be used in academia, it is not a textbook for an academic course. Even though its stories may be shared in various quarters of life, it is a not casual reading of fiction. The Bible is the Word of God. The Holy Spirit is its divine Author (see 2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16, 17). Thus, for us to study and understand the Bible, we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit. From the gospel of John, we read the following precious words from the Saviour: "Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come" (John 16:13).

Friends, the Holy Spirit is the One that can guide us to understand the Scriptures. Before we open the Bible to study, we need to say a short sincere prayer asking for the divine presence of the Holy Spirit to guide us into the truth of God's Holy Word. If we pray for the Spirit to illuminate our minds in our study, the promise that Christ made that the Spirit will be our Guide will come true for us (review John 16:13). There is no better way to learn about the contents of a book than to ask the author. And so whenever we open the Holy Scriptures, let's invite the Holy Spirit to lead us as we turn its sacred pages, and He will make the words that are spirit and life come alive unto us (John 6:63).

2) ALLOW THE BIBLE TO SPEAK FOR ITSELF

Several people in Christendom today are unable to come away with the correct interpretation of various Bible passages because they do not allow the Bible to speak for itself. Many go like "I know I'm right, I'm going to show you the verse in the Bible that supports it". Such people usually twist various isolated texts of Scripture to arrive at doctrines that are contrary to the Word of God. Concerning the Pharisees, Christ made the following statement: "But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:9). The Bible is clear "that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation" (2 Peter 1:20). We cannot place our own interpretations on biblical subjects. To study and understand the Bible, we must allow the Bible to speak for itself. From the prophet Isaiah, we read concerning this clear counsel: "28:9 Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts.

28:10 For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:"

(Isaiah 28:9, 10)
From the passage above, the prophet Isaiah makes it clear that to understand biblical doctrine, we need two important keys:

A) We must be weaned from milk. Milk is food for new born babies. Peter sent the following counsel to new believers in Christ: "As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby" (1 Peter 2:2). The milk of the Word is required for growth as a new believer in Christ. However, as we grow and desire to understand biblical doctrines, we need to feed on meat. Paul's counsel on this point is straightforward: "13 For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. 14 But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Hebrews 5:13, 14).

Many of us spend several hours on academic subjects to obtain excellent grades. However, when it comes to the Bible we think that a superficial reading of it will do. The truth is that a superficial reading of Scripture will only keep us as babies who are not drawn from the breasts. Just as we spend more time and effort to understand various academic concepts, so must we intentionally spend similar time and effort on the Scriptures if we want to understand its doctrines. When we spend quality time with God's Word, we will be amazed at the insights of truth that the Holy Spirit will open unto us. As we near the close of this earth's history, God is looking for workers who will spend quality time to study the Bible to show themselves approved unto God, workmen that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

B) We must study the Bible thematically; for precept must be upon precept, and line upon line (review Isaiah 28:10). To understand biblical doctrines, we must study the Bible subject by subject. To understand a particular subject in Scripture, we must consider all the texts that border on that particular subject. We must travel to and fro across the Scriptures (see Daniel 12:4), considering here a little, and there a little as far as that particular subject is concerned (review Isaiah 28:10). As we concentrate our efforts on examining scriptural texts on a particular subject, we are basically allowing the Bible to be its own interpreter. As we do this, we will be protected from the mistake of building a doctrine on particular isolated texts that seem to differ from the overall message gathered from a plethora of passages on a subject. When we are sure of the clear message on a subject, we can then be able to harmonise the seemingly contrary texts associated with that subject by critically considering their context.

3) CONSIDER THE CONTEXT

The word 'context' is derived from the Latin word 'contextus' which signifies that which is connected or woven together. Context has come to generally mean the words preceding or following a text or passage. Many difficult Bible texts can easily be understood if the reader considers the immediate words which precede or follow the text in question. A typical example of a difficult text that can easily be resolved through this approach is Matthew 16:28. This text reads: "Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom" (Matthew 16:28).

Some read this text and quickly conclude that Christ made a false prediction because the disciples He referred to in the text are all dead yet His Second Coming is yet to come. If those who make such claim had only read a little bit further into the next chapter (that is, Matthew 17), they would have obtained a clear understanding of the words of Christ. This misinterpretation is basically a case whereby just a little reading of the words following Matthew 16:28 would have resolved the misunderstanding, and given a clear explanation of the text. But many readers make a stop at Matthew 16:28 because of the chapter break, and thus miss its clear interpretation.

You see friends, it is important for us to note that the original manuscripts of Scripture did not have chapters and verses as we see in our modern Bibles today. In as much as these are helpful in locating Bible passages, they usually break the chain of thought which hinders complete understanding of certain texts of Scripture. A typical example is this text in Matthew 16:28. If we go beyond the chapter break, we come across the following words: "17:1 And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart,

17:2 And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light."

(Matthew 17:1, 2)
From the passage above, we learn about the transfiguration of Christ. In this experience, Christ fulfilled the prediction He made in Matthew 16:28 when He showed Peter, James, and John, a foretaste of His Second Coming in the clouds of glory. From Peter's account on this issue in 2 Peter 1:16-18, we read the following testimony: "1:16 For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you THE POWER AND COMING OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, BUT WERE EYEWITNESSES OF HIS MAJESTY.

1:17 For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

1:18 And this voice which came from heaven we heard, WHEN WE WERE WITH HIM IN THE HOLY MOUNT."

(2 Peter 1:16-18; Capital Emphasis Added)
Friends, the testimony of Peter above makes it clear that the words of Christ in Matthew 16:28 was experienced by three of His disciples (Peter, James and John) on the Holy Mount of Olives when He was transfigured before them. The text in Matthew 16:28 is just one among several others whereby a clear understanding can only be obtained when Bible students go beyond a mere reading of the text to consider the immediate words that precede or follow the text in question. Quiz: i) Read Acts 10:11-16. How do you understand the passage by just reading these verses? ii) Read Acts 10:1-35. How do you now understand Acts 10:11-16? iii) Was it important for you to have considered the entire passage of Acts 10:1-35? Why or Why not?

Beloved, it is important to note that the context that provides for a proper interpretation of certain difficult texts of Scripture may go beyond just the immediate words that precede or follow after the difficult text in question. For instance, as we saw in the example above (that is, a comparison of Matthew 17:1, 2 with 2 Peter 1:16-18), it is also helpful to consider other portions of Scripture that border on the same subject as the text under consideration (review Isaiah 28:10). This exercise will usually shed light on the problematic text, and lead to a clear understanding.

Moreover, applying context will sometimes require that the entire passage wherein the difficult text is positioned will have to be considered to obtain a better understanding of the text. Some difficult texts may require the reading of several passages before or after the text in question to obtain a deeper understanding. Some difficult texts may require the reading of an entire book/s of Scripture to obtain a clear understanding. Some difficult texts may even require the reader to investigate the historical and cultural setting upon which those texts are based in order to appreciate their meaning.

To understand Scripture in its totality, one cannot do without context. But in as much as context is important, Bible students must know that the guidance of the Holy Spirit will lead one to understand and appreciate more of Scripture than an application of scholarly context without the guidance of the Spirit; for the Author of Scripture is able to make plain to the reader areas of Scripture whereon scholarly effort may fail to ascertain.

4) RECOGNISE THE COMPLETE HARMONY OF THE SCRIPTURES

From Paul's letter to his son Timothy, we read the following important admonition: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine" (2 Timothy 3:16). All Scripture in the text above refers to both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible (see 2 Timothy 3:16 by Angel Manuel Rodriguez). We cannot overlook any of these two great testaments of the Bible if we desire to understand biblical doctrine. While the Old Testament sheds beautiful light on the New Testament, the New Testament draws quotations from the Old Testament to build its doctrines.

For instance, the gospel writers quoted the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament to show how these prophecies were fulfilled in the life, ministry and sacrificial death of Christ (see Matthew 2:14, 15; Matthew 2:16-18; Matthew 4:13-16; Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:27, 28; Luke 3:3-6; Luke 7:24-27; John 12:37, 38; John 19:32-36). Several of Paul's letters to the various Christian churches in the early ages contained quotations from the Old Testament (see Habakkuk 2:4/Romans 1:17; Psalm 62:12/Romans 2:6; Exodus 32:6/1 Corinthians 10:7 etcetera). Moreover, it is estimated that over two-thirds of the verses contained in the book of Revelation are allusions from the Old Testament. What this means is that any Bible student who wishes to understand this apocalyptic book of the Bible will need a strong background from the Old Testament. The message here is simple: One cannot understand or appreciate the New Testament without the foundation of the Old Testament.

Friends, there has always been a golden unbreakable link between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Bible students are to recognise the complete harmony that exists between the two testaments. One testament cannot be separated from the other. It is unfortunate that today, some denominations in Christendom view the Old Testament as an archaic version of Scripture that is not to be highly regarded as the New Testament. This practice is among one of the key reasons that has led to a proliferation of several false doctrines in Christendom today.

Beloved, for us to study and understand Scripture, we must recognise the complete harmony of the entire Scriptures. We must come to understand that no verse or passage of Scripture can be explained outside of the overall context of the entire Scriptures (see Isaiah 28:9, 10; 2 Timothy 3:16). With this understanding, we will strive to compare the various seemingly controversial Bible verses on diverse subjects with all the other verses in Scripture that deal with those subjects. This approach will help us to appreciate the overall biblical interpretation on the various subjects of Scripture, and protect us from misinterpreting seemingly difficult Bible verses and passages that seem to deviate from the total picture.

When we consider the totality of passages in Scripture that have a bearing on a subject, we will be encouraged to study more and more on the subject to find out just where the seemingly controversial texts fit into the overall picture of that subject. For instance, based on certain texts (such as Matthew 18:8; Matthew 25:41; Matthew 25:46; 2 Thessalonians 1:8, 9; Revelation 14:9-11), many in Christendom have come to believe that the wicked dead are going to suffer forever in the fires of hell. However, when we consider all the other passages in Scripture that have to do with the fate of the wicked (such as Jonah 2:6/Jonah 1:17; Jude 1:7/2 Peter 2:6; Malachi 4:1, 3; Romans 6:23; Revelation 21:8), we find out that this teaching is not backed by the entire Scriptures. As we find ourselves in this condition, we are motivated to study more into the various seemingly controversial texts on hell, and then try to discover how they make sense, or fit into the overall picture on the subject of the fate of the wicked dead. Bible students will always be on the safer side in interpreting Scripture when they recognise the complete harmony of the entire Scriptures.

5) HAVE A RIGHT ATTITUDE TOWARDS BIBLICAL TRUTH

One of the basic prerequisites that is needed to understand biblical doctrine is the willingness to obey what one encounters from the Word. From the gospel of John, we read the following words of Christ in relation to this point: "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself" (John 7:17). This requirement of willingness to be obedient to God's Word is one of the main factors that has hindered a complete understanding of the Scriptures in Christendom today.

Friends, the Holy Spirit is the divine Author of Scripture (review 2 Timothy 3:16). He is the same Being who quickens the mind to understand Scripture (John 16:13). It is sobering to learn that God gives the Holy Spirit to only those who obey Him (Acts 5:32). What this means is that only people who are willing to be obedient to God's Word are the ones who will be able to understand the deep truths of Scripture. Thus, we must come to God's Word with a heart that is teachable, and ready to obey what the Spirit reveals unto us in the Word of God.

The innermost desire to be obedient to the will of God is what moves the Spirit to bring understanding to our hearts. Thus, when we open the Scriptures, our prayer should be: Lord, help me to be willing to accept the truth that you reveal to me through your Spirit. Help me to be a doer of Your Word, and not a hearer only (see James 1:22). If we come to the Scriptures with such a positive attitude, the Holy Spirit will lead us into all the truth of Christ (review John 16:13). This experience will enable us to see through the various false doctrines that plague Christendom today, and establish our hearts on the firm foundation of Christ.

6) MAKE USE OF VARIOUS BIBLE STUDY TOOLS

Those who are privileged to know the original languages from which the Bible was translated possess an advantage of obtaining a clearer understanding of various texts that may appear difficult in various translations. Fortunately, several Bible Study Aids and Tools have been developed in our era to lessen the gap between people with knowledge of the original languages of Scripture and those who do not have such knowledge. For instance, the Strong's Exhaustive Concordance helps Bible students to obtain a generally fair idea of the original meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words of Scripture which have been translated into the English language. Bible Concordances such as Cruden's Concordance also helps Bible students to quickly find texts and other information from Scripture.

Today, there are several Bible dictionaries and commentaries that provide insight on the Word of God. We can use them to enhance our understanding of Scripture. However, Bible students must be aware that Bible dictionaries and commentaries are not necessarily inspired writings. In as much as they may provide some wonderful insights on various biblical subjects, sometimes they have the tendency to lead our minds away from the clear "Thus Saith the Lord". Moreover, people who have had the privilege of touring the actual lands upon which the biblical narratives occurred are able to grasp fresh insights from God's Word that a mere reading of the stories do not usually provide. If you are unable to access the luxury of touring the Bible lands, there are several great Bible Atlases and Maps today that make it easier for us to follow the biblical stories, thus making the various stories also come alive unto us.

Today, the internet has made it relatively easier to study the Bible with little or no background knowledge in theology. There are several websites and applications that have been loaded with helpful information to enable laymen obtain great insights into the various teachings of the Bible. Search engines such Google has made it relatively easier to find necessary information in regard to the study of the Scriptures. Despite this good side, it is important for us to note that the internet is also loaded with theological materials that are designed to confuse Bible students from obtaining a clear understanding of God's Holy Word.

Thus friends, in as much as Bible study aids or tools have proven to be helpful in the study of the Scriptures, we should not focus on these aids to the neglect of the actual Scriptures. We must always remember that study aids are only aids which should serve as a means to an end and not an end in itself. The best approach for each one of us is to read more and more of the Bible itself, and apply aids as and when they become necessary; for the Holy Spirit is able to make clear unto us every portion of the Word of God without the need of any outside aid or tool.

In this study, we have considered six approaches that can enable us to study and understand the Holy Scriptures. These approaches are not exhaustive. You can always add up to them as you study the Bible, and discover approaches that can enable you to be an avid student of God's Holy Word. However, it is important for us to note that among the six approaches that have been discussed in this study, the most important of them is our willingness to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit whenever we open the Word of God. We can assiduously apply all the other methods, however without the guidance of the divine Author of the Scriptures, we can study but will come up with very little understanding. It is unfortunate to say that this situation has been the experience of many Bible scholars who have tried to utilise their reasoning powers to interpret Scripture without the guidance of the divine Spirit.

Exhortation: From the pen of inspiration, we read the following encouraging words in relation to the study of the Scriptures: "When we search the Word of God, angels are by our side, reflecting bright beams of light upon its sacred pages. The Scriptures appeal to man as having power to choose between right and wrong; they speak to him in warning, in reproof, in entreaty, in encouragement. The mind must be exercised on the solemn truths of God's Word, or it will grow weak.... We must examine for ourselves and learn the reasons of our faith by comparing scripture with scripture. Take the Bible, and on your knees plead with God to enlighten your mind." -- (1MCP 92.2) In our next study, we will consider the topic: Questions About the Scriptures. The Bible Study references for this study are Deuteronomy 29:29 and Isaiah 8:20. Please do well to go through these texts before the next study is released.

Stay blessed and keep shining for King Jesus.

Maranatha!

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