Spiritual Discipline Series
This year, Expository Files will features 12 articles on Spiritual Disciplines For Every Christian. Our writers will convey to us from the Bible, the simple disciplines that need our attention, to please God and be effective, disciplined people.
By “spiritual discipline” we mean those things God has given us to do. When done consistently, we not only glorify God and serve others well, we build discipline and long-term strength into our lives.
Systematic Bible Study
As long as the Bible lies closed on the living room coffee table, we can look at it, think about it, and even talk about it; but we will never know one thing about God, or Christ, or the salvation of our souls. In order for the Bible to do us any good, it has to be looked through…it has to be studied. It’s been said that the Bible is not something to be looked at or worshipped: it’s much more than that. An uncivilized native might bow down to a telescope and worship it, but an astronomer would know better than that: he would know that a telescope is not made to look at, but to look through. And so it is with the Bible. The Bible was not made to be looked at, but to be looked through. It was given to us to be studied (2 Timothy 2:15; Hebrews 5:11-14).
But studying our Bible is not something that comes easy for most of us. We know we ought to study, and there may even be a part of us that wants to study God’s Word; but we never seem to get it done. And we certainly never seem to be able to develop a systematic, regular habit of Bible study for ourselves. Why is it that this is such a difficult habit to form?
One obstacle, I believe, has to do with motivation and incentive. Far too often, for many of us, a study of the Bible is seen more as a mandatory obligation; it’s something we feel obligated to do. And to be quite honest, it is often preachers (well-intended, though they may be), who impress upon us this strong sense of obligation to study, accompanied by a strong sense of guilt if we fail to study like we should. But “obligation” is not much of an incentive. An “obligation” quickly becomes a “chore” that is easily put off. And the longer we put off this “chore,” the easier it is to ignore any guilt we might have felt initially at failing to meet our obligation. Somehow, we need to find some kind of realistic incentive to study our Bibles more.
But there is another real obstacle to forming a regular habit of Bible study, and that is: we simply do not know how to go about it. We don’t know how to study. And because we do not know how to go about studying our Bibles effectively, we get overwhelmed and discouraged; and soon enough, regular Bible study efforts fall by the wayside.
We would like to help out with both of these obstacles: we would like to offer some practical instruction on how to go about studying our Bibles, and along the way provide some positive incentives that will (hopefully) motivate us to study our Bibles on a regular basis...that will help us be better, more effective, and more disciplined Bible students. So, here goes...
Bible Study Is Rooted in Discipleship
What did Jesus really want accomplished when He sent His apostles into the world with the good news of the gospel? Well, according to Matthew’s account of “the Great Commission,” Jesus wanted His apostles to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). “Make disciples” actually translates only one word: mathēteuō, the verb form of the Greek word for “disciple” (mathētēs). Jesus sent the apostles to do more than simply help men find forgiveness of sins or even the salvation of their souls; He sent them out to “make disciples”! Jesus wants men of all nations to be brought into a special relationship with Him: that of being His disciples. Now a disciple, by definition, is a “learner” or “student”; he is one who learns from his teacher and tries to imitate his master in every way. In fact, the goal of every authentic disciple is to be “like his teacher” (Matthew 10:25; cf. Luke 6:40). The point is: a disciple is what we become when we obey the gospel. We become disciples of Jesus. And as disciples of Jesus, we will spend the rest of our lives learning from our Master through His words taught in Scripture. And that, folks, is going to require an ongoing study of the Bible! We emphasize this point, because one thing that will help motivate us to regular Bible study is an understanding of what we actually are. We are not simply members of some spiritual “club” called the “church.” We are disciples of Jesus Christ! That’s what we “signed up” for when we chose to obey the gospel. We chose to become disciples of Jesus, and we need to make good on the commitment we made when we chose to follow Him. That necessitates Bible study!
We might also point out that surviving this life necessitates Bible study. At least four times, the Scriptures affirm that “the just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38). In each of these places, the contextual emphasis is on the word live: “the just shall live (i.e. survive) by faith,” and the point is that the survival of the just is dependent on their faith. We need to understand then, that we will not – we cannot – survive this life without real faith in God! But how does faith come? It comes “by hearing the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Faith is inseparably connected to hearing God’s Word. And you will remember that when Jesus was resisting Satan’s temptation to turn stone into bread, He said: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4; cf. Deuteronomy 8:3). Our survival in this life as disciples of Christ is not simply dependent on our faith, but also on the word of Christ...because one cannot have life-sustaining faith without the life-sustaining Word of God. That our spiritual survival as disciples is dependent on our practical knowledge of God’s Word provides yet another powerful incentive for regular Bible study.
Learning How to Study the Bible
Of course, recognizing our need for regular Bible study, and even being motivated to develop a disciplined systematic Bible study routine doesn’t mean that we actually know what we’re supposed to be doing when we study the Bible. As already noted, not knowing how to study the Bible is often the real obstacle. So, how do we study the Bible? What does good Bible study look like, and what process or method ought to be used when studying the Bible?
For too many, Bible study is about “running the references” and comparing single verses from all over the Bible that “must be related, since the marginal notes point to them.” And if we ever do focus on one passage of Scripture or book of the Bible, we typically isolate each verse by itself and scrutinize every word one by one before going on to the next verse. And, of course, a natural tendency is to immediately reach for a scholarly commentary to explain the text to us.
I would suggest that this is not the right way to study the Bible...even though it may seem that this is the method used by a number of preachers. Years ago, my friend Tom Hamilton made an observation in a conversation with me that I felt was sadly accurate. He said: “Not only do we preachers fail to teach people how to study the Bible, but by our method of preaching we actually teach people a poor method of Bible study.” And you know what? He’s right. Our preaching is a reflection of our own Bible study methods. Bible study is not about “running the references” and sewing together a string of (supposedly) related texts; and it’s not about isolating single verses from their context and using those texts to prove some point. Yet, this is exactly how too many of us preach. We must do better at preaching...and at teaching people how to study the Bible.
Of course, the exact method you use to study the Bible must work for you. And since we’re all different, and therefore learn and process information differently, one Bible study method may not work for everybody. But please allow me to share with you some practical points that should be included as you develop your own personalized method of effective Bible study.
Practical Suggestions for Effective Bible Study
Be sure to study the Bible itself! Before we make any practical suggestions about effective Bible study habits, let me say something that may seem obvious: we must be careful to actually study the Bible (God’s Word) itself. We say this, because I fear that too many of us substitute a study of the Bible for a study of something that tells us about the Bible...or (more specifically) for what someone else says about the Bible. For example: daily devotions based on devotional books are very helpful and worth using, but this is not Bible study; eventually, we need to study the Word of God itself, and not just someone’s devotional notes based on the Word of God. This is even more critical when it comes to the use of commentaries. Far too often, instead of wrestling with the text ourselves in an effort to understand the text for ourselves, we reach for a commentary.
Some people reach for a commentary almost immediately...sometimes, without even having read the text! But even if we don’t do so immediately, we often do reach for a commentary far too quickly. I would encourage you not to consult a commentary until you have studied the text on your own enough to have reached most of your own conclusions about what the text is saying. I try to only use a commentary after I feel I have a pretty good grasp of the text myself. And I use commentaries after my own independent study primarily to confirm (or refute) the conclusions I have reached so far; or to expose mistakes I have made or points I have neglected to see. The point is that a study of the Bible must be rooted in one’s own personal, independent investigation of the Word of God itself. Use commentaries and other reference works carefully!
Get the big picture! Before we can analyze a specific passage in a given section of a Bible book or letter, we must first get some kind of grasp of the overall message. If we don’t understand the purpose of a book or letter, we will struggle to understand the specifics. This is a part of keeping things in context (something we are often guilty of violating). The best way to get the big picture (or overview) of a letter or book is to read it straight through several times. As you do so, here are some things in your Bible that you need to ignore as best you can:
· Titles of the letters or books: the books of the Bible were not originally titled.
· Chapter breaks: are not original and often are poorly located; but they affect reading.
· Verses: also are not original; their only purpose is to help us locate parts of the text.
· Paragraph markings: these are put in by publishers, based on their own judgment.
· Subheadings: are also put in by publishers; they can be helpful, but also misleading.
· Marginal references: again, included by publishers; sometimes, these are worthless.
· Personal notes or markings: these affect our reading of and thinking about the text.
Read through the entire book or letter the first time to see if you can identify the purpose for which it was written. After reading it through a second time, try to write down the main points. And then, after reading through it a third time, try to make a basic outline of the book. This enables you to examine the book in more “bite-size” pieces, while keeping things in context.
Read the text repeatedly and aloud! Reading is not only helpful when trying to get the big picture (overall purpose) of the whole letter or book, but reading is also a key to understanding any given section of the letter or book as well. After having read through the entire letter or book you are studying and after having begun to break it down into sections, we would strongly suggest that you read the section you are focusing on over and over again...as many as ten or more times. And as you read and reread the text, do so: once to yourself, and once out loud; once to yourself, and once out loud. And every time you reread the text (and especially when reading aloud) try to do so with the proper expression, intonation, and emphasis.
The reason we emphasize reading the text aloud is simply because that is the way the Scriptures were written: they were written to be heard (1 Thessalonians 5:27; Colossians 4:16; Revelation 1:3). We must remember that the greatest percentage of people in the first century Greco-Roman world were illiterate; and even if they could read, the Scriptures were typically read publicly to audiences, since most people did not have their own personal copy of the Scriptures. Only hand-written copies could be made; and having a personal (hand-written) copy of the Scriptures would have been too expensive for the average person. And so, since the Scriptures were written to be heard, we help ourselves greatly when we read the Scriptures out loud, so that we can hear them. And you will be surprised how reading and rereading (especially aloud) a given passage of Scripture will enhance your understanding of it (Ephesians 3:4). The more times you read it, the more things you will begin to see in the text that help you understand it. So: good Bible study starts with a thorough reading and rereading (multiple times...aloud) of the text to be studied.
Be a student of words! My old mentor, George Lemasters, really impressed the significance of this point on me by saying: “Be a student of words, because words make up the Word.” What a simple, yet profound admonition! Listen: it is impossible to have an accurate understanding of God’s Word, if we don’t accurately understand the words He has used to convey His message. So, do you understand the words that you have been reading in the text? And please, don’t make the mistake of assuming you understand the meaning of the words (especially those that seem to be prominent in the text). Take the time to figure out what those words mean. And don’t assume that you can overlook big or hard-to-pronounce words (like “propitiation” or “reconciliation” or “redemption”). Knowing the correct meaning of words is critical!
One way to help you understand the words in a text is to compare your translation with other reliable versions of the Bible. But it would be even more helpful for you to (at least) consult a good English dictionary, so that you can assure yourself that you understand the English words chosen by the translators in the version you’re using. Even better is if you study the words used in the original language. This does not mean that you have to be a Greek (or Hebrew) “scholar” or that you even have to be a Greek student. Easy-to-use tools are available in book stores and on-line with your computer. To get started as a student of words, I would advise you to purchase and learn to use a Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. You need to know little or nothing about the original Greek language to use this tool. The point is that a good Bible student will make sure he understands the words being used in the Word. And the better he understands the words used, the better he will understand the Word itself.
One word of caution about Greek studies: please recognize that being (even) a good student of words does not make you a Greek scholar. Sometimes, as our understanding of Greek vocabulary grows, and especially if we learn a thing or two about Greek grammar, it is easy to begin to think that we “know Greek.” I know, because I’ve done it. I had two years of New Testament Greek in college and I have tried to be a decent student of words through the years; but my second year of Greek (which I’m so glad I had) taught me that I had learned enough Greek in my first year to be dangerous both to myself and to others! It taught me that I did not and do not know Greek! One doesn’t have to “know the Greek” to understand God’s Word or be a good Bible student. Again, quoting Tom Hamilton (who does know the Greek): “If you can’t make your argument from an accurate English version of the Bible, then you probably don’t have a good argument.”
Analyze the text by asking questions! Learn to walk through the text you are focusing on by asking yourself who, what, when, where, and how questions. This technique helps you get to what is actually being said in the passage. The key to this technique, though, is not just asking yourself questions; the key is being sure to answer all the questions (finding all the answers) in the text itself...preferably with the actual words in the text. You will be amazed how learning to do this effectively will open up your understanding of any given passage. Of course, the one question that we must always ask ourselves whenever studying a text is: “Why am I being told this?” God does not include things in His Word without having a reason; and we need to try to figure out that reason. This will help us get to the real application of the text, and it will also help us keep everything in context...which brings us to the next very important point.
Context, context, context! We cannot overemphasize the importance of context in good Bible study! Context is almost everything when it comes to accurately interpreting Scripture! We, who scream the loudest about “keeping things in context” when studying with our denominational friends, are often the biggest violators of the context. To help us keep things in context, we need to ask ourselves questions like: “Why has this been written? What occasioned the inspired writer to include this point and at this place in the text?” Again, answering these questions from the text itself will ensure that we are keeping things in context.
And while we’re on the subject of “context,” we need to ask ourselves: what is the historical context in which this book or letter was written? We need to remember, for example, that the New Testament letters were not written directly to us; they were written to someone else. And so, when we read some New Testament letter (as Marty Pickup used to say), “we’re reading someone else’s mail.” Now, don’t worry: it’s okay to do that; God wants us to read it. But it really is someone else’s mail. And because it’s someone else’s mail, we must see that it was written in their historical context with their cultural backdrop and imagery; and we must try to read it from their perspective. A great deal of this historical perspective can be learned from the book of Acts, so check that out. In the same way, the historical context of the Old Testament prophets (especially) can be learned from the historical books of the Old Testament; and without that historical backdrop (i.e. who was the prophet sent to? what were the historical circumstances he was facing?), we will struggle to grasp the message of those Old Testament writers.
Be objective! Do not study just to prove a point or validate an already held belief! Unfortunately (and again I quote George Lemasters), “too much of our study is born out of controversy.” In other words, a lot of times we are motivated to study some Bible text or subject because we are presently facing some issue of contention. This is not the best time for objective Bible study! For example, it is not a good time to try to figure out what we believe about divorce and remarriage, when divorce is already threatening our family! In such circumstances, it is very hard to maintain objectivity; and the tendency will be to read into the Bible what we already believe (or hope to convince ourselves to believe) about the issue. Similarly, we must be careful not to read into a text some “current issue” among us. This was Martin Luther’s mistake: he read the book of Romans in light of his current controversy with the Catholic Church on the subject of salvation by meritorious works; the result was that he read salvation “by faith only” into the Roman letter. We must understand this: that we have to let the text of God’s Word tell us what to believe...and not the other way around! We cannot approach the Bible with preconceived ideas that we wish to validate. That is one of the quickest ways I know of to inaccurately handle the Word of Truth – something we’re simply not allowed to do as God’s approved workmen (2 Timothy 2:15).
Practice what you learn! Bible study is never complete or finished if it does not include putting into practice what has been learned. I’ve said it over and over again: “Any Bible study that does not make me a better person simply is not good Bible study.” Bible study is supposed to change us (our actions, attitudes, and choices), so that we begin to reflect more and more the image of our Lord Jesus Christ. God’s Word is not simply to be learned intellectually, but to be practiced with and used to train our senses to “discern good and evil” (Hebrew 5:14); we learn to “approve the things that are excellent,” so that we can do the things that are excellent (Philippians 1:9-11)!
This is the real difficulty of Bible study: not so much to understand what God’s Word means, but rather to do what God’s Word says. Remember the lawyer who tested Jesus by asking, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25)? As the story goes on to show: this man really already knew the answer to his own question; he knew that to inherit eternal life one must love God with all his heart and love his neighbor as himself (10:26-27). This man didn’t really have a knowing problem. He had a doing problem – which is why, when Jesus told him, “Do this and you will live (10:28), he tried to justify himself by asking, “...who is my neighbor?” (10:29).
If we really want to be good Bible students, then we must determine not just to know God’s Word, but to do it. That is the real objective of good Bible study...to practice it, so that we can please our Master, serve Him more faithfully, and be like Him. Bible study is never finished, until what has been learned is implemented into our lives!
Summary and Conclusion
Including these principles in your own Bible study process will make your study of the Bible more effective; and the more effective your Bible study is, the more enjoyable it will be for you. And when you take your study of the Bible to its fullest end – that is, when you actually begin to practice what you’ve learned and are changed by it – that’s when you find the greatest incentive of all for regular Bible study: actually being like Jesus! You become the disciplined disciple He wants you to be and you experience the joy of living the disciplined life your Creator intended for you to live. Let me encourage you: develop a regular, systematic habit of Bible study.
From Expository Files 23.8; August 2016