One question I now receive (almost) weekly at our church is, “How do I properly study the Bible?” This question over joys me because it means the Holy Spirit has illuminated a new generation of young men and women to the PRIORITY of Scripture over feelings, opinions, and mysticisms so common in the lazy pulpits of modern America. Because not everyone can enter seminary let’s review a few basic principles of proper Bible study that will assist.
Pastor and Author John MacArthur tells the story of a guest on the Trinity Broadcasting Network who was explaining the Biblical basis of his, “Ministry of Possibility” theology. The TBN guest explained, “My ministry is based entirely on my life verse, Matthew 19:26, “With God, all things are possible.” He then went on to say, “God gave me that verse, Matthew 19:26, because I was born in 1926!” Obviously intrigued by that method of obtaining a life verse, the host grabbed a Bible and began thumbing through it excitedly. “I was born in 1934,” he said. “My life verse must be Matthew 19:34. What does it say?” Then he discovered that Matthew 19 has only 30 verses. Undeterred, he flipped to Luke and read Luke 19:34, reading, “They said the Lord hath need of him.” Thrilled, he exclaimed, “The Lord has need of me, the Lord has need of me! What a wonderful life verse! I’ve never had a life verse before, but now the Lord has given me one. Thank you, Jesus, Hallelujah,” and the studio audience began to applaud. At that moment, however, the talk show host’s wife who had also turned to Luke 19 said, “Wait a minute, you can’t use this. This verse is talking about a donkey.”
This tongue in cheek story from TBN illustrates the need for careful examination of Scripture. Yet, another example happened to me more recently when I met a young woman who had been to a church where the Pastor preached on Abraham and Sarah, eventually screaming at the audience, “Today, you must receive the anointing of Sarah! Some of you women who’ve wished to get pregnant for years, must receive this promise in faith today!” This young woman had prayed to be pregnant for years and attempted to take hold of that supposed promise of Sarah. However, after another year of waiting she grew doubtful, beginning to question the church, the Pastor, her faith, and even God. Sadly, an errant Pastor had defused the faith of a woman by promising her what the Bible never promised. Thankfully, she left the church and began growing in the Word.
So, what are basic principles for properly understanding the Bible? It’s impossible here to write a complete analysis of Biblical interpretation, and I’ll intentionally avoid grammatical complexities, but let’s do a quick flyover which will enhance your study, devotions, and sharing. By doing what I’ve listed you’ll be able to properly learn 1) What did your selected passage mean to the original audience? 2) What was the SINGULAR theological goal of that passage? 3) How could that singular principle be applied for your life today?
- Interpret the Text Chronologically – The Bible consists of 66 books written over 1500 years by 40 authors and it doesn’t contradict itself in chronology, geography, prophecy, or historicity. Yet, various books were written during select times and for select purposes. Man’s natural egocentrism would have us believe that every part of the Bible was written for us and for the current church age but this is untrue as much of the Bible was written for people who existed under a different covenant between God and mankind. An oversimplification, but helpful, overview of visualizing genre could be the Old Testament books of history, law, wisdom, and prophecy as Christ predicted, the Gospels as Christ revealed, Acts and the Epistles of Discourse as Christ explained, and Revelation as Christ returned. As Norman Geisler writes, “This issue (genre) may seem remote from biblical debate but it is quite relevant, for once the notion grabs the mind that the synoptic Gospels were not intended as history then even conservative evangelicals will be forced into a radical view of Christianity. (It was precisely this misuse of genre that almost sent the woman in the story above away from the church for good. )
- Interpret the Text Literally – Assume that the Bible is using typical speech patterns, much as we would in current life. A tendency for many is to look for extra special meanings behind words, which is distracting and erroneous. If the Bible says, “Chariot” then we may assume it means chariot unless there are figures of speech, similes, metaphors, hyperbole, to indicate that it means something else. A study in the book of Revelation provides us many opportunities to discern what John writes as literal as compared to what he writes as metaphor or symbolism. In Paul’s epistles, one must analyze what are figures of speech or what is sarcasm, but the principles for discerning these items are not largely different from what we do every day. For example the simple rule of simile (like or as) brings great clarity between, “He is a bear” vs. “He’s like a bear” and the same rules must be applied to Scripture. (This is the basic error or popular devotionals like Jesus Calling, wherein Sarah Young sits on a mountain top adding her words of insight over and above the words God chose to reveal.)
- Interpret the Text Historically – Based on genre (Point #1) and Literalness (Point #2) the original readers of a biblical text would have understood it quite clearly. But, after the passage of millennia it’s not as easy for us. “Just like the Constitution, when it was written everybody understood what they meant but here we stand a few hundred years later trying to figure it out. Why? Because history changes.” (MacArthur). Cultures change, customs change, and languages change. Thus, what the readers of Canaan, Babylon, or Jerusalem, may understand easily requires much further research for us. And we must be VERY careful of making theological assertions on cultural assumptions. We’ve all heard it done from the pulpit: People say, “Jesus made water into wine so He’s freeing us up to party a little.” Yet, many scholars believe 1st century wine was a way of purifying drinking water before refrigeration and likely only 1/10 the alcoholic content of a current Merlot. Another example could be John 3:5 where Jesus tells Nicodemus a man is, “…Born of the water and Spirit…” People immediately assume Jesus’ mention of water is referencing physical birth, a.k.a. “A woman’s water breaks.” But, Jewish people didn’t use that modern colloquialism, thus it’s silly to base our interpretation of Christ’s words to a Jewish audience based on our modern English prose.
- Interpret the Text Systematically – The Bible is perfect because it has a perfect Author therefore the Bible must always interpret the Bible. The Bible hasn’t changed in 1800 years meaning that if a man teaches or haphazardly mentions a doctrine one Sunday which directly opposes what he taught last Sunday, the Scripture is not wrong, the man is wrong, and should resign his pulpit or admit his struggle. To the best of his ability, a Pastor must synthesize the Bible from cover to cover and promise his congregation that, “What I teach today is what I’ll teach in 30 years because it’s not based on whispers, feelings, anointing, burdens, outbursts, or miracles, but only on the reliable and unchanging text.” This may not seem pertinent but note that Wayne Grudem writes, “People may live together happily while differing on theological interpretation that do not directly impact behavior (e.g. creation, end times) but issues directly affecting behavior, within the corporate church, make it difficult for people of differing positions to fellowship together.” Thus, how we interpret the Bible will ultimately impact what our church acts like, who our friends are, and how our families are raised. (When men claim to, “Hear from God” every week, and repeatedly change their message and method to match, they unintentionally teach their people that the Holy Spirit is only right PART of the time.)
Someone once said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” If you follow the principles set forth here, you won’t be one of those who accidentally trample upon God’s Word. You’ll be protected from the all too common error of, “Making a point at the expense of proper theology.” Never use GOD’S verse to make YOUR point, instead let GOD’S verse teach GOD’S point. “Study to show thyself approved unto God, as a workman unashamed…”
John MacArthur Jr, Charismatic Chaos, Zondervan 1992
Norman L. Geisler, Inerrancy, Zondervan 1980
Wayne A. Grudem, Are Miraculous Gifts For Today, Zondervan, 1996