Warning: Important subject, lengthy post.
He asked me how to know whether God wanted him to do a specific thing. I asked in return, “Do you read the Bible?” His reply: “Oh, yeah! I study the Bible all the time!” Curious, I asked, “What does that look like?” “Well”, he said, “Every morning I read a devotional by Chuck Swindoll”. “Ok, and then what?” I asked. “Oh, that’s all I need.” was his response.
And yet, the question he was seeking an answer to is answered clearly in scripture.
What went wrong? He never read it.
Every Christian knows that “The Bible Is God’s Word”. But how many really study the Bible?
Some think it is too hard. It’s mystical. It’s…the Bible! How could I study the Bible?
Some think this is the preacher’s job. Isn’t he supposed to do the study and then pass it on to us on Sunday morning (in 1/2 hour or less!)? Isn’t he supposed to “feed” us?
Some don’t really accept the Bible as God’s Word. After all, God didn’t really write it, did He? Wasn’t it a bunch of old men who have been dead thousands of years now? Do I really need to study that?
Well, yes. You do. If you don’t, you will never be spiritually healthy or strong. You will be without guidance and without the ability to tell truth from lie, sin from righteousness. Everything becomes right or wrong based on whether it makes you happy or not. It becomes all about how you feel.
Which, by the way, is pretty much a description of the American culture.
Christians believe that the writings in the Bible were written by people under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Paul said, “All scripture is inspired by God, and is profitable for teaching, correction, reproof, and training in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16). God had a reason for giving us the writings of scripture. We need them. (NOTE: In this post, I am not attempting to defend the legitimacy of scripture, that is for another post. However, I will go so far as to state that, after studying scripture for nearly half a century I have never heard a valid objection to the assertion that the Bible is indeed the Word of God. In fact, I believe it is both illogical and unscientific to NOT believe in scripture).
So, to be spiritually strong, we need to study the Bible. How exactly do we do that? Over 40 years ago one of my mentors (thanks Don!) shared a simple formula with me. You know you’ve studied the Bible when you can answer three questions about a passage (or passages about a topic):
“What does it say?”
“What does it mean?”
To answer “What does it say?” all we need to do is read the Bible–or listen to it if you are more comfortable with that. But a few sentences or paragraphs once a week is NOT enough. I generally recommend that a person begins with one chapter a day (generally 3-5 minutes of reading). Don’t try to start bigger–it is the main reason people don’t stay with Bible reading. Once that habit is established, it can be lengthened until the person is regularly reading a half hour a day.
During the reading, questions should arise, just as they do when we read anything else. What exactly does that word mean? How does this mesh with what I read in that other passage? What does that refer to (historically, culturally, etc.)? Too often Christians read and have these questions, but simply don’t answer them.
So, “What does it mean?” Notice, this is NOT “What does it mean to me?” or “What do I think it means?” or “How do I feel about that?” There is nothing subjective in answering this question. It isn’t “a matter of interpretation”. It does, however, require that the person investigating know how to use certain resources: Bible dictionaries, concordances, topical Bibles, specialized commentaries. Each of these allows us to access information others have spent their lives accumulating.
Here’s an example. In Ephesians 5 a simple reading has led many to believe that men are to love their wives, while the wife’s role is to submit to her husband. This has caused division in marriages and in churches. However, if we actually study the passage instead of just reading it, we quickly discover two things:
- Ephesians 5 doesn’t specifically say wives are to submit to their husbands. In vs. 21, it says we are all to submit to one another. In the next sentence, Paul says, “Wives, to your own husbands.” The word “submit” isn’t actually in vs. 22. The translators rightly read the context and surmise that Paul means wives are to submit to their own husbands. But the reason this make sense is because in the previous sentence Paul has commanded us ALL to SUBMIT TO ONE ANOTHER. Biblically, marital submission is mutual.
- Husbands are commanded to “love” their wives. However, since English didn’t exist when Paul wrote this, obviously the one thing he DIDN’T say is “love”. He used a Greek word, which has been translated “love”. The problem is the English word “love” can mean more than 20 different things. So, what exactly has Paul commanded husbands to do? We learn this by looking up the Greek word translated “love”, and then the meaning of that word. The word is “agapao”, which means to do whatever is best for the other, regardless of the circumstances, what they do, or how you feel.
Clearly, studying this passage leads us to a radically different understanding of the meaning of the text. I should say that no Bible scholar would argue with my points–it isn’t my “interpretation”, it is simply what the text actually says. Yes, wives are to submit to their husbands. But husbands are also to submit to their wives–and the way they do this is to do whatever is best for their wives until they (the husbands) are dead.
This study is fairly simple, but it does take a little time. So, to answer the question, “What does it mean?”, we have to devote some time to study. I recommend that the Christian begins by learning to use the Bible study tools (this isn’t hard, a Biblically trained minister can teach you to do this in an hour). Then, while reading each day, they should make notes of important passages, words that are important or vague, questions about context, background or history–anything they want to look into further. Then, at least once a week, set aside an hour to use the Bible study tools to look up the answers to these questions. Most people I know find this not only enlightening, but actually fun. And it teaches them that they can actually study the Bible for themselves–they are no longer dependent on someone else to “feed” them. They can feed themselves!
Having done this, most would believe they have now completed their Bible study. But the Bible itself says they aren’t done yet. James tells us we are not to be just “hearers” of the Word, but doers as well. (The word “doer” can be translated “practitioner”).
So, “So what?”
Now that we know what the passage says and means, if we are followers of Jesus, we practice what the Bible says. I am a husband. I am not married to “women” or “wives”. I am married to Donna. So, hearing what Paul has said in Ephesians 5, I must ask myself the question, “What does Donna need–what is “best” for her? And how can I do that for her?” Then, I need to actually put that into practice.
THEN, and only then, can I say I have truly studied the Bible.
A final note: The reason I spend so much time on this post–on Bible study–is that so often people in the world have judged the value of the Bible–or of Jesus himself–by the lives of those who say they believe in the Bible. But there is an enormous difference in behavior and lifestyle between those who say they believe in the Bible and those who actually practice Bible study by answering these three questions and then practicing what it says.
The fact is, only those who do this are mature or healthy Christians.