Every Christian who is able to read and study the Bible should do so. One of the most important skills that anyone can have is that of knowing how to study the Bible.
The people of Berea tested Paul’s teachings against the Scriptures (Acts 17:11). We should also study the Bible for ourselves, for the sake of other people in our lives, and out of love for the Lord. God’s Word is able to build us up and give us an inheritance among God’s holy people (Acts 20:32).
All too often, we have relied on pastors to do Bible studies for us. However, the position of pastor is only one of five ministry gifts (Eph. 4:11). In addition, any Christian could bring a teaching or revelation to share with other believers (1 Cor. 14:26).
Since Bible teachers disagree on many doctrines, perhaps all do not start from the right foundation. We must all begin with the question of how to study the Bible. I think the best way of studying the Bible is not to go through a long list of steps, but only to be aware of some important principles in mind. I would suggest that you keep in mind the following thirteen principles.
We Should Study the Bible…
1. While Putting the Context First
In order to understand the Bible, we must take into account the genre and context of every passage. Unfortunately, some Bible interpreters tend to override this rule by bringing a literal bias to every passage. It’s neither possible, nor desirable to interpret every Bible passage literally. Anyone who has read the Book of Revelation should understand the folly of this approach.
2. As Relevant
Since all Scripture is God-breathed and useful (2 Tim. 3:16), we ought to think about how to apply the Bible’s teachings in every area of life. Unfortunately, each of us is tempted in some ways to suppress or minimize the truths presented in God’s Word (Mk. 7:13, Rom. 1:8). That’s because our sin natures do not want to do the will of God (Rom. 7:18). To offer an example, I believe this explains why many Christians teach that Satan reigns in this world, and that we’ll only see the kingdom of God after we die or are raptured. This seemingly innocent doctrine appeals to the sin nature by telling Christians, “This world is evil, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” If this were true, it would conveniently absolve God’s people of much accountability, and many responsibilities in this world.
Among other things, relevance equates to responsibility and representation. God has empowered us through the Holy Spirit, informed us through His Word, and called us to responsibly represent Him in this world.
3. As History
The Christian faith is based, not on myths or fables, but on historical events such as the Resurrection of Christ. Although we often don’t have external evidence to support the Bible’s historical accounts, we can and must rely on faith. Let’s not forget that Jesus Himself believed in the inspiration and historicity of the Scriptures, including the stories involving miracles.
By the way, if you don’t already know this, it’s no secret that I’m opposed to biblical literalism. Literalists seem to think they are the only Christians who take the Bible seriously and read it as history. Some have mockingly told me things like, “Maybe Jesus wasn’t a literal person.” In fact, when we follow Rule #1, we find that the Bible describes Jesus as having been a real Person, in addition to being God.
My “bias” toward reading the Bible as history can be supported not only from Jesus’ example, but also from passages such as 1 John 1:3. I know of no verses or doctrines that would support a literal bias.
4. As a Collection of Ancient Texts
In order to fully understand the Bible, we need to learn about ancient Hebrew culture, about people such as the Greeks, and some world history. I’m especially fascinated by how the ancient Hebrews perceived God and the world, and by the poetry, metaphors, types, and patterns that they employed. This explains my blog’s title, Premodern Wisdom for Postmodern Times.
5. With Christ at the Center
Of the three members of the Trinity, only Jesus is referred to as the “Word of God” (Jn. 1:1, 14). The Bible gives us God’s plan of redemption through Christ. The Old Testament pointed forward to Christ, and the New Testament presents the full revelation. We’re allowed to find Jesus in the Old Testament because the Holy Spirit knew about Jesus, even if the human authors didn’t.
6. With Diligence
Like the Bereans, we shouldn’t unthinkingly accept what other Christians teach us about the Bible. We should seek to understand the entire flow of Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Jesus, His apostles, and Paul were all steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures. Similarly, each of the prophets knew what had been written before their time. We can’t expect to understand the Bible if we only study parts of it in isolation.
7. With Our Spirits
The Bible is a spiritual book that must be spiritually understood (1 Cor. 2:13-14). Ask the Lord to help you understand His Word, and read it in a calm and prayerful state of mind. You’ll learn much this way, and you’ll know that the glory belongs to God.
8. With Our Minds
Christians should engage the culture, and not only for personal evangelism. We should relate the Bible’s teachings to our society and intelligently interact with the secular world. The idea is not to seek respectability in the eyes of the world but to let it be known that God’s Word is Truth and, again, that it’s relevant.
9. With Our Hearts
Jeremiah wrote that the heart is deceitful above all things (17:9), but later wrote that God planned to write His law on our hearts (31:33). No matter where we turn in the Bible (or what someone may say to us), our hearts can help us remember that God loves all people, and that He is especially loving, gracious, and merciful to us who believe. Jesus freed us from the Law, and does not condemn us (Rom. 8:1-2).
10. With Our Imaginations
In one of the most beloved psalms, David used metaphors to compare himself to a lamb being led by the Lord, his shepherd. The Bible offers many such metaphors, which invite us to use our imaginations. Anyone who tells you our imaginations are always evil is relying on errant Bible translations that they took out of context.
11. With Our Consciences
Even though our consciences are also fallible, we all have a pretty good idea of what’s right and wrong. We should question any Bible interpretation that makes God appear unjust or immoral, especially when such interpretations are used to justify human evil.
12. With Bible Study Resources
I am thankful for Christians whose research and studies helped me understand the Bible with my mind. They also helped me know in my heart and conscience that God has always been good and just in His words and deeds. I consult Bible study resources whenever I study a scripture passage or topic in depth. Since you’re reading this, I’m sure you already believe in taking advantage of the many Bible translations, tools, books, articles, and other resources that we can find both on the Internet and in bookstores.
13. With the Proper Balance
Everything above points to the need for a balanced approach to God’s Word. The Bible is a beautiful, heavenly, and grace-filled book. Paradoxically, much of it is crude, earthy, and confrontational. The Bible tells us that God’s loves us unconditionally, but also that we’re sinners in need of repentance. Jesus is fully God, but He’s also fully human. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point. In order to find approval with God as students of His Word, we must hold its seemingly contradictory truths in tension.
Some elements in the above list may be new to you. In particular, you may have been taught that you should try to take the Bible literally whenever possible. For this reason, I further explain my opposition to biblical literalism and my “relevancy bias” in a follow-up post titled, Biblical Literalism is Irrelevant and Impotent.
I believe the above list can help you gain more from your Bible studies, and help you evaluate the doctrines that you’ve been taught. Given the need for balance, it may benefit you to think of which areas you’re strong in, and where you may be weak.
If you can think of anything I missed, or if you have any other comment, here’s your opportunity.