HOW TO STUDY THE
BIBLE FOR YOURSELF
How To Study The Bible For Yourself
"HOW TO STUDY THE BIBLE TO BETTER KNOW OUR GOD (AND OURSELVES)"
Other Effective Bible Study Methods
Twelve Inductive Bible Study Methods
Charts for the Twelve Inductive Bible Study Methods
Practical Bible Study Methods:
Observation | Interpretation | Correlation | Application | Meditation
This is the complete study in one page. If you prefer to see each section page by page go here.
There is no practice available to mankind that is more rewarding, more beneficial, and more enlightening that the diligent pursuit of God. Solomon has written in Ecclesiastes that:
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether good or evil."
Mankind was created by God to enjoy fellowship with Him but the rebellion of our first parents in the Garden of Eden (and man's continual rebellion ever since that time) erected a barrier between God and man that will only be completely removed when Christ returns to claim His own. Until that time one of the most time honoured means of enhancing our fellowship with God is through the study of the Bible yet there seem to be fewer practices that are more consistently ignored. All too often Christians seem more than willing to uncritically accept Bible teaching from others and little motivated to perform even the most elementary of studies and so miss out on the great good that may be enjoyed as we immerse ourselves in the study of the word of our God.
The Bible has been called the Christian’s sword. It is one of our primary tools in the proclamation and defence of the Gospel of Christ. However, if we cannot use it with skill and dexterity we are like a carpenter who is unable to build a structure that will stand the test of time because he is cannot properly use the tools of his trade. Our own ineffectiveness in our handling of the Word will have a similar result in making us less effective Christians and we likewise will be unable to produce a work that will stand the test of time since our understanding of God and His involvement in the activities of man will have been built upon a shoddy foundation and our teaching of others will be equally questionable.
It is the purpose of this study to encourage each of us to devote ourselves more thoroughly to Bible study and to set out some basic principles by which we may put to better use the time that we spend on Bible study. Various methods of Bible study will be introduced so that a structured study may take place which will make use of study practices that have been developed, tested, and found valuable by other Christians. When properly done Bible study is an enjoyable and rewarding task that will bring us nearer to our God. It is my hope that this study will permit that joy as you enter into the study of God’s Word and help you to think the thoughts of God.
The underlying premise of this study is that Bible study is not an end unto itself but is a method by which we come to learn more of God. Salvation rests not on knowledge of the Bible but on Jesus who died in our place. If Bible study does not help us appreciate more the glory of our God and the love God has for us then it is a fruitless occupation filling us with false hope and proud knowledge. The ultimate purpose of Bible study is to draw us nearer God, to help us be amazed at who He is and what He does and to fall to our knees in adoration of the One who loves us so much that He did all that needed to be done to reconcile us to Him. Study the Bible and in doing so love God.
This study is best summarized as follows: Come to the Bible with questions, not answers. If you read no further than this, I want to leave you with this: Read the Bible. Read the Bible in prayer, much and regularly.
If the Bible is truly the revelation of God to mankind then it is a book that must not be taken lightly but must treated with care, with the realization that God is speaking through its pages to all who come to it. The internal testimony of the Bible supports that it is the revelation of God to mankind:
Acts 28:25-27 - 25 "So when they did not agree among themselves, they departed after Paul had said one word: "The Holy Spirit spoke rightly through Isaiah the prophet to our fathers, 26 "saying, ‘Go to this people and say: "Hearing you will hear, and shall not understand; And seeing you will see, and not perceive; 27 For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them."‘ (quoting from Isaiah 6:9-10)
2 Timothy 3:16 "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God..."
At no point does the Bible take any stand other than that it is "given by inspiration of God." Its internal consistency is without peer in any written work of man and continually reveals the hand of God. It is also consistent with the world in which we live. As we read the creation story we learn a story of origins more believable than any theory put forth by man. We can almost understand the anxiety of Paul and his shipmates as they are tossed about in a furious storm. We feel the fear that Adam and Eve felt when God confronted them in their sin. The story of Jonah swallowed by the fish amazes us but does not strain credulity. The Bible speaks of the world that we inhabit with an attention to detail that is beyond the ability of any novel. We can rest assured that the Bible is like no other book that has been or will ever be printed. It has a source that is beyond humanity. If we were to approach the text of the Bible as being no more than a work of great literary beauty, as though it were the mere equivalent of Homer, Shakespeare or Milton, we would do an injustice to the book which, alone among all other books, contains the revelation of God in the words of God. Yet all too often, in part because many of us have grown up with its teaching and feel that it has become stale or cliche, we tend not to be impressed by the words that we are reading. No matter how familiar we become to some of its contents we must continually remember that it is through the prayerful study of the Bible that we can better come to know our God and better live as His people in this life.
Some will say that we need only to rely on the Holy Spirit to teach us and that the Bible is supplementary. This seems as though it should be true but we must also realize that God has given us minds, that these minds are intended to be used and that they are also capable of being deceived. We need to learn and remember that the Bible is trustworthy, that it too is the product of God and that through its proper use we can evaluate what we believe and what we are being taught - either by the Holy Spirit or by human teachers - and so learn to discern truth, be able to accept the teaching of God's good ministers and also refute the lies of our enemy as we lay hold of the truth of our God. As was the Ethiopian eunuch we are convicted of the truth of the Bible by the Holy Spirit if we remain willing to be taught.
Acts 8:26-39 - 26 "Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, "Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." This is desert. 27 So he arose and went. And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, 28 was returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go near and overtake this chariot." 30 So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, "Do you understand what you are reading?" 31 And he said, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 The place in the Scripture which he read was this: "He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; And as a lamb before its shearer is silent, So He opened not His mouth. 33 In His humiliation His justice was taken away, And who will declare His generation? For His life is taken from the earth." 34 So the eunuch answered Philip and said, "I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?" 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. 36 Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, "See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?" 37 Then Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may." And he answered and said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." 38 So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. 39 Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing."
We must also keep in mind that the Bible is not a difficult book to understand. Yes, there are sections that are more difficult to understand than others, but overall the Bible is a book that can be understood by anyone. Since the Bible is God's written revelation of Himself to mankind it is not unreasonable to say that He has intended for us to understand what He is telling us of Himself through it. Just as we can apprehend the existence, glory and justice of God through creation so we can apprehend characteristics of God and His involvement with humanity through the Bible. The study of the Bible will take careful thought, hence this document, but it is not beyond our capability to grasp its teaching. There is infinitely more to God than human wisdom can conceive but what He tells us of Himself is not beyond reason. Study the Bible like someone digging for treasure: There may be significant effort but the reward is worthy of the task.
Perhaps the best reason for studying the Bible is that through the diligent study of the Bible we gain God’s approval, learning how to properly handle the truth it contains and the truth that He has revealed in His creation:
2 Timothy 2:15 "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth."
Paul is comparing Timothy’s use of the Bible to a workman’s use of his tools and encourages him to consider the embarrassment that would occur if the workman were to use his tools improperly. Paul argues further that Bible study is crucial for the proper spiritual development of all Christians in all places and at all times:
2 Timothy 3:16-17 - "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work."
We are encouraged to remember that the Bible is more than just good literature, although it is the very best of literature. It is more than simply a detailed historical document, although it is the most detailed of any historical document. It is more than a general handbook on how to live a good life and become a good member of society; even though we would become good members of society if we followed its teaching. (Though isolating the moral teaching of the Bible from the spiritual teaching of the Bible there remains no foundation for its moral teaching which consequently has no worth.) The Bible is the actual revelation by God of Himself to His people. As His revelation to us the Bible takes on an importance far beyond any other written material in the history of mankind. If we isolate all the teachings of the Bible from the reality of the Bible as God’s revelation of Himself to mankind we are left with a book that may still be worthy of study but which gives us no coherent reason why we should study it or why we ought to live as it teaches us to live. The Bible is important not because it is a good book but because it is a book which was given to us by God who is Himself good. The reason that the Bible is worth studying is that when we study the Bible we are actually studying God’s thoughts as He has revealed them to mankind and therefore Bible study is not merely an interesting intellectual exercise, it is one of the chief methods by which we come to know God better.
There has been an ongoing trend for Christians to rely on the Church leadership as a primary source of their interpretation of the Bible. While to a certain extent this is unavoidable there is the temptation for the lay members of the Church to rely solely on the teaching of the Church leadership and to not do any Bible study of their own.
But we do not only learn about God has He has revealed Himself to us, we also learn that He is a participant in the story that the Bible tells. We learn that God is a creator God and that this world which we inhabit is His handiwork. In reading that God created man to enjoy fellowship with Himself we learn that He is a personal God (not personal as belonging to an individual but personal as possessing individuality) and that He is not remote from His creation but is intimately involved with it. In reading of the fall of man and God's plan of redemption we not only learn that God is holy but that He is also just and forgiving, characterized by an unending love for His creation. The Bible does not describe the god of the mechanist's universe who merely "set the ball rolling" and then stayed out of its way. The Bible describes the God who created all that is and who through His personal and active involvement in that creation is working out His plan for those who will be saved. As the writer to the Hebrew believers has said:
Hebrews 1:1-3 - "God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,"
It is important to study the Bible because in so doing we not only learn of God be we also learn of ourselves.
The Bible gives us the answer to these questions by making us aware of our identity and position, our source , our purpose and significance and our destination. The Bible is not only important because it reveals God to us but because it also reveals us to ourselves, we are not merely readers of the Bible story we are also participants in the Bible story. We are included as beneficiaries of, as we who believe are participants in the Great Commission that Jesus gave His disciples:
Matthew 28:18-20 "And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, "teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Amen.
We who believe are among those who make up the Church of Jesus:
1 Peter 2:4-5 "Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ."
The Bible is not just a book about God, it is a book about us and in studying it we learn who we are.
Additionally, it is through Bible study that we become able to discern errors in doctrine. At the time of this writing books, music and movies dealing with Biblical themes may be purchased in any store (I write from North America, in other parts of the world this may be less true). Preachers can be seen on television or on video at any hour of the day teaching their views of God and His interaction with mankind. In the midst of all this available Christian teaching (for regardless of the author's stated motive the creative process reveals some aspects of the author's beliefs) how are Christians to become equipped to understand where the difference is between truth and lie. We often allow these teachers to form our beliefs because of the assumptions below:
1) The topic has been fully and honestly researched
2) The teacher is accountable to God and to man
3) The teacher is doing the work of God
Unfortunately these assumptions are not always true. Many teachers adored by Christians today are trustworthy and care more for the sheep than the shepherd. There are, however, those who are mistaken either deliberately (under demonic influence) or accidentally (from carelessness or lack of education). In either case (and therefore in every case) the teacher's teaching must be evaluated for its adherence to the Bible. Just as one prepares for a race well in advance of the event so must Christians prepare in advance to evaluate Christian teaching. This is done through prayer and Bible study. Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, actually goes so far as to praise those who evaluated the teachings of the apostle Paul himself, one of the most dedicated evangelists in history:
Acts 17:10-11 "Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so."
It is equally important for Christians today to evaluate their teachers, to disagree with them when they are clearly in error and to support them when they are clearly right regardless of their fame or integrity.
A fourth assumption that prevents many Christians from studying the Bible is this:
4) The teacher has had greater training and therefore has an ability greater than my own.
There has been an ongoing trend for Christians to rely on the Church leadership as a primary source of their interpretation of the Bible. While to a certain extent this is unavoidable there is the temptation for the lay members of the Church to rely solely on the teaching of the Church leadership and to not do any Bible study of their own. We do ourselves and God a grave injustice when we begin to rely on training rather than understanding. We respect the expertise of the experts and somehow feel that their additional training and study makes them trustworthy. But such is not always the case. Many world class theologians today discount the historical reliability of the gospel accounts of Jesus and instead believe Jesus to be more of an idea than an individual. Many other men and women have formidable training in the sciences yet do not acknowledge God at all. If you are a Christian you believe in God, the creator of all that is in just six days; you believe in His Son Jesus Christ, our Saviour who is alive today as He was two thousand years ago; and you believe in and are inhabited by the Holy Spirit, a personal force no amount of "secular" science could ever prove. In so believing you are in serious disagreement with the vast majority of scholars and Nobel Prize winners today. Scholarship does not make scholars so well as does unbiased inquiry into the facts and allowing the facts to lead you to the appropriate conclusions.
Bible study is the process by which we dive deeply into the text of the Bible in order to better understand what has been written in its pages and why it is there. Bible study is an in depth analysis of the Bible with the aim of allowing the Bible to teach us that we may be better able to know God and to do His will and is not so much our hearing a someone expound upon Biblical teachings as it our discovering those teachings on our own. The best and most productive Bible study is inductive, meaning that we come to the Bible as people who are willing to allow the Bible to speak to us rather than looking in the Bible for support for our own ideas regardless of if they are right or wrong. Bible study is for those who wish to think, not for wishful thinkers. Our attitude should be one that would say: "I want to hear what the Bible says" rather than: "I want the Bible to say this."
We must also remember that we do not just study the Bible and learn it to become experts at it or to prove ourselves right on some point of doctrine, we are to study the Bible in such a way that its teaching will make an impact upon our lives, changing us to become ever more what God desires us to become. If in our Bible study we do not allow God to speak to us by whatever means He chooses then we will have missed the best part of it. Bible study is not only an intellectual exercise to increase our knowledge (though this is always a part of Bible study), it is in addition a heart changing encounter with God through which we learn more of He who desires to be the goal of our lives and His perfect will for those lives. Bible study should always be wrapped in the prayer that we will be able to hear what God would say to us.
The best time for Bible study is when you have the time available to do it regularly and the attitude to do it properly. We may each have different times of day when it is better for us personally to study the Bible but in every case the Bible study cannot be profitable if we do not permit ourselves to spend the time required to make it profitable. It is recommended to set aside a predetermined amount of time for Bible study at regular intervals so that Bible study can become a part of your way of life. A definite place in which to study, where you can lay out your various resources and can study without interruption is also a very good idea. These are not absolutely essential and we understand that God will reward any who will diligently approach Him in order to learn more of Him and His desires for our lives. But every effort that is taken to ensure that the time spent in Bible study will lead us to a personal encounter with God will be rewarded by God. The following episode taken from the life of Daniel will illustrate the point:
Daniel 9:1-4; 20-23 - 1 "In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of the lineage of the Medes, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans— 2 in the first year of his reign I, Daniel, understood by the books the number of the years specified by the word of the LORD through Jeremiah the prophet, that He would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem. 3 Then I set my face toward the Lord God to make request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. 4 And I prayed to the LORD my God, and made confession, and said, "O Lord, great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and mercy with those who love Him, and with those who keep His commandments....20 Now while I was speaking, praying, and confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my supplication before the LORD my God for the holy mountain of my God, 21 yes, while I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, being caused to fly swiftly, reached me about the time of the evening offering. 22 And he informed me, and talked with me, and said, "O Daniel, I have now come forth to give you skill to understand. 23 "At the beginning of your supplications the command went out, and I have come to tell you, for you are greatly beloved; therefore consider the matter, and understand the vision"
All the information we have about Daniel indicates that he was a man who sought after God and desired greatly to please Him in all ways. In the above passage he discovers, through reading the prophecies of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 25:11) that the captivity of Judah was to be of seventy years duration. Whereupon he prays and God acknowledges his prayer and gives him an understanding of the events to come. God rewarded Daniel's diligence and He will do the same for each of us.
Whether we want to or not we begin to interpret as soon as we begin to read the Bible. Primarily this is due to the fact that twenty centuries or more have elapsed since the events recorded in the Bible took place. While this is of greatest disadvantage to those of us living in what today are termed "highly advanced cultures" it is also a disadvantage to those living in cultures more closely approximating the culture in which the Bible was written. No one alive today has any direct connection with the events recorded in the Bible, lives are simply not lived in the same way today as they were then. This is perhaps the greatest single reason that debate can exist concerning the meaning of various passages of the Bible; what could have been perfectly understandable to the original audience is often meaningless to we who are so far removed from the culture of the times. Picture what the book of Revelation would have meant to you if you were alive in the time in which it was written. You would understand more of the symbolism and the number 666 might actually specify a living person familiar to you (many interpreters believe that the number actually was a code to represent the emperor Nero, but such speculation is beyond the scope of this work, the basic point I am attempting to raise is that it is a very real possibility that the original readers of Revelation knew of whom John was speaking).
Today we have the perspective of distance. We are greatly removed in time and circumstance from those who originally read its words. In one sense this can be a benefit since we have a greater awareness of the flow of the Bible as a whole, and the Old Testament in particular, than did the men and women of Jesus' day who had only the Old Testament and so we are able to understand many of the themes of the Bible because they have actually taken place in human history. In an other sense this is also a tremendous liability since we have no idea of what it was like to walk along the Judean roadways with Jesus, we have not directly interacted with Him as did His first followers. We can speculate at the impact that Jesus had on the lives of those who lived with Him and come to the conclusion that He was a man of incredible personality but we can never directly experience Him in this life in the same way as those who ate with Him, spoke with Him and walked with Him. Jesus Himself acknowledges the limitation of our distance in His words to Thomas after His resurrection:
John 20:28-29 "And Thomas answered and said to Him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
Given that interpretation is unavoidable we have the obligation to ensure that our interpretation causes us to understand the message of the Bible as did its original readers. It is for this purpose that this document is being presented, so that the person devoutly seeking to understand what God is saying in the Bible may be given some direction as to what approach to take and what tools are available to make the study as worthwhile as possible.
The Importance of the Bible.
Cultural historians of the West place the Bible at the foundation of Western thought and morality. Until very recently the moral teachings of the Bible have been almost universally embodied in the laws of the Western world and even in this present age, with this morality under increasing attack, the teaching of the Bible still forms the foundation of the Western judicial system. Educators study the Bible as an example of the highest forms of human expression, as a source for information on ancient civilizations, and as a historical document of unparalleled accuracy and depth. The Bible has been variously described as: literature, history, poetry, drama, logic and myth (both in the sense of a traditional story accepted as truth and in the in the sense of an untrue tale of an unknowable past) to name only some of the responses to it. We who are Christian believe that while the Bible may be each of these in part it is also more than these in the whole (and that it is certainly never myth in the sense of an untrue tale of an unknowable past). We believe that it is in fact Truth as revealed by God to mankind over numerous centuries. The Bible does contain history and it is used extensively to date other historic events; it does contain poetry, some of the most beautiful ever written; it is logic, filled with irrefutable proofs to the validity of its teaching; it is even literature, giving great insight into literary methodology of cultures long vanished. But more than any of these the Bible is the one document that relates the story of God’s interaction with mankind and His vast and glorious plan to fulfill His purpose within the created order and redeem mankind from his sinful condition.
The Bible does not present itself as an exhaustive text on any one subject; but since it has been written under the guidance of God, creator of all that is, where it touches on any subject it teaches the absolute and unalterable truth.
In a following section we will discuss the four components of inductive Bible study (observation, interpretation, correlation, and application) with the intent of emphasizing the need that we treat the Bible carefully. Why is it so important to treat the Bible with care? Because it is the word of God. If we know anything about God it is that He is a life changing God, it is His desire that we be turned from our ways of sin and restored to the ways of life:
Ephesians 4:17-24 "This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness."
His will is that men and women no longer are slaves to death but become His children and heirs of life eternal.
2 Peter 3:8-13 "But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells."
Since this is the case, and since the primary means of man’s apprehension of the reality of God’s love for him is through the Bible it is essential that the Bible be properly understood so that its message may be taught undiluted. Therefore the means by which the Bible is studied is critical.
The Bible is comprised of 66 books which were written over a period of roughly 1,500 years by various individuals as the Holy Spirit moved them. The books themselves fall into different categories which are determined by their literary structure. These categories, which reflect in part the author's purpose in writing each book, are further discussed in the section: Types of Writing in the Bible - Genre. Between categories there is often some overlap. Prophecy is not restricted only to the prophetic books but is frequently found elsewhere and much that is within the prophetic books themselves is in the form of poetry, Isaiah is an especially good example of prophecy in poetic form. Many of the Psalms are poetry and at the same time are unquestionably prophetic. (The fact that much of the Bible is couched in poetry should not detract from the value of the text as poetry is often a far more capable method of expression than is prose.)
Old Testament (39 books)
1 & 2 Samuel2
1 & 2 Kings2
1 & 2 Chronicles2
Song of Songs
(Note 1 to 6 refer to above and below)
(1) These are also referred to as "The Law," "The Law of Moses" or "The Pentateuch."
(2) The books of Samuel and Kings give the history of both Israel and Judah from a moral standpoint, while the books of Chronicles give the history of the kings of Judah alone to a restored nation from an idealistic perspective.
(3). Though poetical these are also known as "Wisdom Literature," they also contain a great deal of prophecy and refer frequently to events recorded in the historical writings
(4) Also called "The Song of Solomon"
(5) Major prophets*
(6) Minor prophets*
* Note that the major and minor prophets are not named to signify their importance or the importance of their message but to indicate the size of their prophetic writings, both together are referred to as "The Prophets" by the Jews.
New Testament (27 books)
1 & 2 Corinthians3
1 & 2 Thessalonians3
1 & 2 Timothy4
1 & 2 Peter3
1 & 2 &3 John3
(Note 1 to 5 refer to above and below)
1. Known as "The Gospels," biographical accounts of the life of Jesus
2. The history of the early Church beginning at Jesus' ascension, overlaps most of the letters
3. Letters to churches, not churches as we know them today groups of believers in various regions
4. Letters to individuals
5. An apocalyptic account of the end times and the beginning of eternity, although most of the other books of the New Testament also contain prophecy they are not devoted entirely to prophecy.
Translation is essentially bringing information from one language into an other as accurately as possible, and must pay attention not only the translation of the words themselves but also of their setting, or context. A poem that has its words translated accurately but is no longer in poetic form is not accurately translated. Effective Bible translation would therefore bring the work of the original writers into a modern form that is both readable and intelligible.
In a sense, the process of translation is an ongoing one. The KJV was the most modern and accurate English version of the Bible available in 1611 and it has undergone several revisions over the centuries. Currently, the English Standard Version (ESV) which is one of the most up to date and accurate English versions of the Bible. Years from now there may be an even more modern translation made so that the text of the Bible can be reliably understood by the readers of that day.
All translations of the Bible fall into one of three categories, each of which determines the value of the translation for a given use and each of which has its own advantages and drawbacks. It is a good idea, especially if you have reason to be concerned about the translation of a given passage, to compare the translation of your preferred study Bible to that of an other translation in order to determine how other scholars have dealt with the text.
Although there is today a great deal of dialogue concerning the value and integrity of the translations replacing the King James Version it is a fact that no modern translation disagrees with any other on any significant doctrinal issues of Christianity. Feel free during your study to compare the English Standard Version to versions such as the New International Version, American Standard Version, the King James Version or others, in so doing you will at the very least satisfy yourself that the passage being studied has been handled accurately and perhaps enhance your understanding of what is being said.
Below is a description of the three major schools of thought with regard Bible translation:
The translation is done in such a way as to make the translated text as accurate as possible and most closely follow the literary structure of the original languages (therefore it is also given the term Literal Translation). In this category are the English Standard Version, King James (and the New King James) Version, American Standard Version and the Revised Standard Version, among others. Though highly accurate and praised for their literary beauty, translations of this style are sometimes difficult to read since the thought processes of the minds that used Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are conveyed as accurately as possible and are often quite alien our own. Complete equivalence translations seek to bring the Bible to its readers in their own language with as little additional translation as is necessary to make it readable.
In this category are the New English Bible, the New International Version, and several other modern translations. The thrust of this type of translation is to translate the text so that it has the same impact upon the reader today as the original did to its readers of many years ago. Thus many idioms, figures of speech, locations, and weights and measures will be updated to their modern counterparts. The danger of this style of translation is that, although it is usually very readable and coherent, the translated text has already undergone a level of interpretation which may further remove the reader from the truest meaning of a given text. Because of the aim of dynamic equivalence translations an additional layer of interpretation has been performed based on current understanding of Biblical culture.
3 - Paraphrase
The most readable of all translations, the paraphrase is also the least accurate and is generally unable, and often unwilling, to hide the bias of the translator. Some popular paraphrases of today are The Living Bible, The Phillips Bible and The Message. Where literal and dynamic equivalence translations are usually done by a group of scholars commissioned for the task, paraphrases are typically the work of a single translator working to put the text of the Bible into "common speech" and therefore they are less likely to be a balanced treatment of the word of God.
While for general reading they may be of some value as they make the Bible text seem more alive to the modern reader, they should be avoided for Bible study since quite often the translation does not accurately reflect the thoughts of the writers of the Bible. I would not recommend a paraphrases in general and believe that they convey the thoughts of God mingled with the thoughts of the translator. That being said if the only Bible you have is a paraphrase then by all means use it and do not think that it is of no value for study and for gaining some awareness of God as long as you realize that there are more accurate resources available and that you will not gain the best understanding of the Bible if all that you use is a paraphrase. The paraphrased Bible that you study diligently will be of far greater benefit to you than the literal or dynamic equivalence Bible that you ignore.
Even within the various categories of translation there are differing viewpoints as to how the translating should be done. Some will translate all measures into their modern counterparts and refer to all geographic locations by their modern names, while others will make no attempt to modernize these expressions. There are problems to be found in both schools. If we are to modernize the ancient monetary terms to their modern counterparts then we may find that we have devalued what was a not unreasonable sum of money in ancient times. Likewise when we modernize locations we will find that on occasion we are operating on assumption and local custom that may be incorrect.
Yet if the archaic terms are retained we will have difficulty putting what we read into its proper context. Until it is interpreted for us into its roughly equivalent modern terms we will have no idea what a shekel is. Yet, once we assign a modern value to the shekel we link the ancient currency to our current problems of inflation and monetary devaluation. By the same token if we tie ancient locations to their modern counterparts we may actually relocate some of them by great distances due to the difficulty in certainly identifying geographic locations that are at least several thousand years in the past.
It is also difficult to place a definite meaning on some terms such as the cubit. There are at least three different lengths assigned to the cubit (eighteen, twenty-one, and thirty-six inches) which makes it almost impossible to understand how big Noah built the Ark or how large was Solomon's Temple until we determine which cubit was in use at the time or referred to in the narrative. Once we are aware which methods the translators of our favourite study Bible have used in their work we can begin to better understand what that translation is telling us.
There can often be a temptation to delve at depth into the original languages of the Bible, especially during teaching sessions, in the belief that this will result in a better understanding of the Bible than is otherwise possible from a translation. While I believe that there is merit to this practice, I also believe that it can be taken to the extreme; to the point that the translation itself is viewed as an unreliable alternative to the original manuscripts. The problem with this extremism is that it could lead people to believe that the translation is untrustworthy and that, to be a true Bible scholar, one must learn the languages that the writers of the Bible themselves used. While certain nuances of one language cannot be accurately translated into an other language; in general we must trust that the translators made decisions that were guided by God as they were choosing how to translate the Bible to more modern languages. In most of the cases that I have encountered in my study of the English Bible (I will not say all cases) the English translation has been of so satisfactory a quality that the there has been negligible benefit from going back to the original languages.
This is not to say, however, that a study of the original language is entirely without value; just that we must be careful to avoid forming the impression that a translation of the Bible is not as worthwhile or trustworthy for in-depth study as the Bible in its original languages. As a Bible student who is conversant only in English, I wish to say that, while we may encounter possible alternate translations of certain passages or ideas, we must trust that the translators are of far greater skill in this area than we who are not. We must trust that their decisions in these situations are made with integrity, the desire to serve and honour God and the commitment to give us the best translation of the Bible in our own language that is possible. We must be very careful with our own retranslation of these passages into possibly "better" phrasing that we do not ignore the overall context of the areas in which these passages are found. The Bible is the word of God and is worthy of our greatest respect. We cannot be making the Bible say what it was never intended to say.
At this point the question "Which translation of the Bible should I use?" should be answered. Although there is a great deal of discussion between the supporters of each of the various translations the best answer is most likely this:
IMPORTANT: As long as your main study Bible is a trustworthy translation created with the aim of portraying as accurately as possible, and as readably as possible, the thoughts originally presented in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic you cannot go far wrong.
The remains quite popular and has the significant advantage of having a great many study helps referenced to its text. Three of the tools mentioned below (Young’s Analytical Concordance, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, and The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge) are themselves most helpful when used with the KJV translation. The majestic structure of its language lends a grandeur to the text to which many modern translations cannot compare. It is quite literal and very specific in its use of English phrasing and so is highly accurate.
A drawback of this translation is that it contains many words which, due to the changes in the English language since 1611 which were not updated in the subsequent revisions, are obsolete or used in a different manner than they were when it was originally printed and thus require translating themselves. It is also a difficult translation to read in public for the same reason, although in general its sentence structure is easier to read than that of the NIV.
A worthy successor to the rich tradition of the King James Version is the New King James Version, which updates much of the language but retains the beauty of the text and accuracy of translation while making available the results of modern textual research. One outstanding feature of these translations is that they indicate by use of italics words that have been added during translation to make the English flow more easily (this practice has also been adopted for all texts quoted in this document).
Is one of the more popular translations of our day, much as the King James Version was in its day, and it comes in a wide variety of formats and is accompanied by an ever growing list of supplementary references. It is a good translation though not as literal as some others (as it was translated by a group of scholars from a variety of Christian denominations in an attempt to avoid denominational bias).
Coupled with the fact that most people read regularly from the NIV and are familiar with its text makes it a natural choice if you wish to share the results of your study with others and have them feel comfortable with the manner in which the Bible is quoted. Personally would recommend the New International Version to give to those new to the Bible, New Christians and developing Christians. A suggested list for those not familiar with buying the right Bible for under $15.00 at www.christianbook.com here.
The ESV is a highly literal translation of the Bible that is also highly readable. One of its predominant features is the use (as much as possible) of consistent English translations when the same word or phrase is used in the original languages. The ESV well deserves its growing reputation and is justifiably becoming one of the favored translation of Christians throughout the world. Continuing the fine tradition of the King James Bible into the twenty first century is the English Standard Version.
American Standard Version - An other fine translation is the (an Americanized descendant of the Revised Standard Version which was published in the United Kingdom). Though not found in as wide a range of study Bibles the ASV is considered by many to be one of the most literal translations available and maintains much of the linguistic beauty of the KJV in more contemporary style of language.
IMPORTANT: When choosing a translation you will need to be sure that it is relatively free from such dangerous bias and poor translation methodology as would cause a distraction from the Bible study itself; we are, after all, embarking on our Bible study to learn more about our God, not to be annoyed by the foibles of our fellow man. No one translation is entirely free from bias but some are far more serious than others. If you know where errors of this nature occur in your Bible you can overlook them but over time they may become annoying and also begin to act as a detriment to Godly study.
A good selection of the translations discussed above are available in most of the current selection of study Bibles so your primary question will eventually become: "Which set of study helps do I wish to have accompany the Bible I use?" It is recommended that the study Bible you use for yourself not be one of the special interest Bibles currently on the market. While these Bibles will contain worthwhile study helps they are generally concentrated along a narrow topic of interest or doctrinal stance and may overlook other areas of study. Be sure to look for a study Bible that has a proven history of limited bias, and a conservative interpretation of doctrine.
Many study Bibles with in text notes (such as the NIV Study Bible, or the Life Application Bible) is that the notes are often an abbreviated or condensed form of commentary and that there is consequently a great temptation to allow the textual notes, which are printed on the same page as the verses to which they refer, to determine how the text itself is to be interpreted. It is important to realize that any study notes, all chapter and verse divisions, as well as all section headings were not originally part of the Bible and have been added subsequently by human editors as study helps to the reader. They are very often trustworthy and can enhance our understanding of the text but they can never be placed on the same level as the text itself.
Remember that the purpose of inductive Bible study is to allow the Bible to speak to us as we study, keeping in mind that the Holy Spirit will teach the willing heart just as Jesus promised:
John 14:26 - 26 "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you."
Let your motive in Bible study be not as much as head knowledge, but the Holy Spirit ministering and working in us as in 2 Corinthians 3:17 -18. "Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord."
2. Bible Dictionary or Encyclopedia
5. Interlinear Bible
6. Parallel Bible
7. Cross Reference
9. Background Resources
11. Computer Software
12. The Most Essential Tool
In order to get the most out of your Bible study you should employ the correct tools. Just as a doctor, or a carpenter will make use of tools to perform their tasks, the Bible scholar uses tools to assist and enhance the study process. As you become skilled in the use of these tools you will find that your Bible studies will yield ever increasing rewards. Listed below are some of the more important tools:
1 - The Bible
This may seem to need no mention but a trustworthy translation of the Bible is essential if we are to be confident that we are as close as possible to the original reading of the passage except that we are reading it in English. A study Bible will not be essential but it will be a tremendous asset as study Bibles usually include in one volume many useful study helps such as: cross references, historical background information, book introductions and outlines, etc.
An other important type of Bible worth purchasing is a parallel Bible, one that shows on one page several translations side by side, making it easier to compare various translations of a passage. My personal preference for a study Bible would contain only the text of a reliable translation, a good collection of cross references, a useful dictionary/concordance and a relevant set of maps and charts. The primary benefit of such a Bible would be that it would tend to avoid the risk of doctrinal error that is inherent in study Bibles laden with interpretive notes and encourage its user to allow the Bible to speak for itself.
Several of the more reliable and popular study Bibles are:
a. The ESV Study Bible is perhaps the finest study Bible I have yet encountered. Combining a translation that is both readable and highly accurate with study notes that enhance the Bible's message, the ESV Study Bible is a joy to use. Copious charts, maps and notes make the text come alive and enable our entry into a culture 2,000 years gone as much as is possible in a single volume. With 80,000 cross references, extensive tables of Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in the New Testament, geographical and historical background it is possibly the most comprehensive study guide available.
b. The Thompson Chain Reference Bible which is still one of the standards by which other study Bibles are measured and is one of the few study Bibles actually included in readily available Bible study software. Over forty years of research and study were spent in compiling the system of topical chains and references that allow the Bible student to quickly come to an understanding of almost any area of study. Extensive archaeological information is also printed for many places referred to within the text of the Bible. As well it boasts a considerable topical Bible, and a large concordance each of which enhances the ability of the Bible student to easily locate specific teaching or verses in the Bible. All in all there is very good reason why the Thompson Chain Reference Bible is still one of the most popular study Bibles available.
c. The New Inductive Study Bible is an excellent study resource with a minimum of interpretive notes but a wealth of guidelines on interpretive principles, even the various book introductions refrain from specific analysis and offer guides to interpretation instead. The New Inductive Study Bible is also a relatively conservative treatment of the Bible; for example, although many study Bibles include a chronology of Biblical events the chronology included with the NISB is one of the few I have seen that begins at 4000BC rather than ambiguously referring to the pre-Abrahamic period as the undatable past. With many maps, charts, cross-references (although not as many cross references as in the NIV Study Bible, there are significantly more than in many other study Bibles) and wide margins around the text this is an especially useful resource for the serious Bible student.
d. The Open Bible which contains a cyclopedia topical index, a concordance, book introductions and analyses, and many other valuable helps and study guides. Although its cross referencing system is not up to the standard set by other study Bibles this lack is ably compensated for through its comprehensive topical dictionary. The Open Bible also includes tools of value for Christian workers such as answers to common objections to Christianity and basic Gospel presentation. Although more difficult to obtain than previously it is an extremely useful tool and is highly recommended.
e. The NIV Study Bible which with its in text maps and historical notes is an excellent choice. Its cross referencing system is almost without peer as to quantity (about 100,000) and usefulness. It also contains excellent book introductions, maps, and quite a large concordance, as well as many other useful tools. Other notes, however, offer very useful biographical, historical and cultural information in a very timely manner.
f. The NIV Thinline Reference Bible is a compact reference Bible combining the NIV text with the extensive cross reference system of the NIV Study Bible and a moderately sized concordance. This Bible is very good for inductive Bible study as it includes none of the study notes commonly included with study Bibles and allows Bible students to follow a concept through the Bible and come to their own conclusions on the Bible's teaching.
Any combination of the above would appear in-text as much as possible without disrupting the readability of the Bible so that the necessary resources are present where and when they are needed with a minimum of page turning except to minimize repeated identical references.
Many other excellent study Bibles are available but those listed above enjoy almost universal approval. Regardless of which study Bible you make use of you must be aware of any apparent bias on the part of the study helps incorporated into the Bible. Some study Bibles emphasize through their notes and helps doctrinal opinions that are accepted by only a small minority of believers and which can sometimes be at odds with the truth of the Bible itself. Even several of today's standard translations will occasionally exhibit a theological trend somewhat off the beaten path and of which the student must be aware. When in doubt as to the value of a specific study help remind yourself that any contradiction between human understanding of the Bible and the true meaning of God’s word is always due to finite capabilities of the human mind and its ability, regardless of level of education, to make mistakes.
1 Corinthians 13:9-12 "For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things."
No set of notes will ever be perfect as each will be the product of the human mind and will never be without a certain amount of bias; all comments and reference notes must be compared against the Bible itself. It is always a worthwhile task to review the editorial and copyright information within any Bible you wish to purchase/use in order to determine the nature of the bias present in that treatment of God’s word and be prepared for when it appears during your studies.
It is also a very good idea to ask if you can preview any Bible before you purchase it and examine its notes on specific issues. Pay specific interest to the notes relating to issues that would be of concern, such as: creation, eschatology (study of end times), theology (study of God), or soteriology (study of atonement). For those who interpret Genesis literally the notes in most modern study Bibles will fall far short of their ideal, having chosen to compromise the teaching of God with that of man by interpreting the Bible in the light of evolutionist teaching.
Also controversial are modern translations that remove gender specifics in reference to God, weaken the Bible’s authority on homosexuality and/or other morality issues, or deny the interruption of the normal by acts of Gods’ power (miracles). If no available study Bible meets your immediate needs perhaps a combination of any or all of the tools below should be considered.
Acts 17:10-12 "Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men."
How to Use this Tool
a. As has been and will be stated throughout this work let the Holy Spirit speak to you through the Bible. Do not come to it seeking confirmation of a favored idea (unless it has been supported through previous study) but come to the Bible seeking to have your mind opened and your ideas directed toward your God..
b. The Bible is itself the inspired word of God and, as Paul has said, is suitable for training and correction unto Godliness. The chapters, verses, divisional headings, marginal notes, cross references and all other additional materials are all the work of man and are therefore not nearly so trustworthy. It can sometimes be of great benefit to read the Bible without all that has been added throughout the years to facilitate our use of it. A Bible with only chapter and verse notation (as it is next to impossible to obtain a Bible with the words alone) can be very useful when you are gathering a feel for the context of the passage being studied.
c. Read the Bible not merely as a textbook on how everything came to be but as a textbook on yourself. You and I are participants in the Bible story to as great an extent as any of the characters portrayed within its pages. You and I are as much (potential) recipients of salvation through Jesus Christ as were the Hebrews of Jesus' day (in His physical presence on Earth in human form).
Since the Bible was written in a culture that no longer exists it is difficult for us to place ourselves in a position to understand Biblical writing in a manner similar to those to whom it was originally written. The distance between us and the original audience is great, in terms of both culture and time. Many individuals, events, and nations referred to in the Bible are completely unknown to the average reader while some are unknown even to our current understanding of history and are only revealed as archaeological inquiry unearths extra-Biblical evidence of their existence (indeed many will doubt the Biblical record as a legitimate historical document unless such extra-Biblical evidence is found).
These two tools are designed to reduce this difficulty and contain much information that will help us to feel as much as possible the impact that the text would have had on its original recipients. At the very least they enable us to participate to a small degree in the culture in which the Bible was produced and come to some understanding of the times in which it was written.
How to Use This Tool
a. Use a Bible Dictionary/Encyclopedia to look up the definition and significance of unfamiliar words as you encounter them.
b. Read it in your free time as a way of becoming familiar with the way of life as it was lived in Bible times.
c. Compare information in two or more Bible Dictionaries/Encyclopedias. Occasionally versions of these resources make compromises on critical issues (such as creation vs. evolution) that many Christians may not necessarily feel equipped to evaluate critically. Where disagreement exists between the teaching of the Bible and the teaching of man it is the teaching of man that must be modified.
3 - Concordance
Such as "Young’s Analytical Concordance", "Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance", or "Cruden’s Compact Concordance." Each of these contains the location of every use of every word of the Bible (or most major words in the case of "Cruden's Compact Concordance") and are usually keyed to the King James Version. Most Bible software include similar capabilities which are often extended to include logical and phrase searches; greatly adding to the value already found in the concordance.
A concordance is an excellent tool to use when performing a word study as it allows us to follow the usage of the word in question in both negative and positive contexts. Were we to use a cross referencing system to follow a particular word through the Bible we might find that in general only usages of a certain type would be included since the cross reference is an edited listing of related verses. When studying the meaning of words such as faith, love or sin the concordance is the best tool to use gain an appreciation of the Bible's understanding of the word.
A good concordance is Strong's Exhaustive Concordances read online.
How to use this tool
a. As there are many different translations of the Bible available it would be cumbersome to have a concordance for each one. A very practical way of using one concordance with multiple Bible translations is to look up the verse you are studying in the translation for which you have a concordance and see what word in that verse most closely matches the word in the translation you are using as your study Bible. This has the added benefit of letting you see how the word was treated in different translations of the Bible and how it was translated elsewhere in the Bible you are using.
b. Keep a bookmark or two in your Bible and use them as you could be looking up a great number of passages. Keep one or two in your concordance as well.
4 - Lexicon
Or word study such as "Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words" or the "Theological Dictionary of the New Testament." Since the Bible we read today is a translation of thoughts and ideas that were originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, such a tool is useful in determining the original intent of the author by making available to the modern reader a detailed definition of the English word(s) in the context of the original language word(s) used. Most lexicons will also give detailed information as to how the original word(s) would have been used by men and women alive at the time that the passage was written. A concise dictionary of the words in The Hebrew Bible by James Strong here.
How to use this tool
a. Like a concordance the lexicon is usually keyed to a specific translation of the Bible so the usage tips that apply to finding a specific word in a concordance also apply to the lexicon.
b. A good lexicon will also list the various ways in which the original word was translated into your language, some of which may better agree with your preconceptions than others. Let the context in which the word appears in the Bible be your guide as you select which of the definitions to apply to your study.
Simply put, an interlinear Bible is a Bible in which each line of English text is interspersed by that same text as it would appear in the original language. This allows you to actually see the structure of thought in the original and gives you an extremely literal translation, although very difficult to understand. A second advantage of using an interlinear Bible is that you can determine at a glance the actual words used by the original authors and how these words have subsequently been treated by the translators of the English Bible. Most bookstores will have copies available of some form of interlinear New Testament, and most computer Bible programs will also have an interlinear New Testament. Interlinear copies of the Old Testament are less practical as Hebrew was written from right to left and therefore an exact English translation would be extremely difficult to read unless the Hebrew original were to be reversed, which would somewhat defeat the purpose of the process.
6 - Parallel Bible
A parallel Bible contains two or more translations of the Bible in the same language. This tool is useful when the student wishes to compare how a passage has been translated by differing schools of thought. Again, although the student may be tempted to accept on translation's treatment over an other's, we must all remain open to the guidance of God's Holy Spirit and allow Him to teach us what we need to be taught rather than choosing a translation that appeals to our opinions or bends the Bible to our own will.
As the difference between even the two most divergent translation traditions (as represented by the King James Version and the New International Version) amounts at most to only 5% of the Bible, and as this difference in no way affects any critical Christian doctrine, the parallel Bible is often less important than the other Bible study tools.
It does, however, allow the student to easily determine where differences have occurred and perhaps note those areas for further study. One problem with studying with a parallel Bible lies in the uncertainty of which text to follow in the event of textual differences. In the case where such differences occur it is recommended that you fall back upon an alternate resource, such as “The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge” (below) in order to determine what alternate passages of the Bible may have to say regarding the passage being studied.
How to use this tool
In the section below on Indecisiveness the dangers of having differing opinions of a certain passage is discussed. As the various translations within a parallel Bible will often express Biblical teaching in different ways we may be tempted to choose the translation that most suits our desires. Again, it is the context of the passage that determines its meaning. Alternate translations may shed light on a passage but their teaching must not be accepted simply because it appeals to us. We must also take care not to reject an alternate translation if it states things differently than does our favored translation.
7 - Cross Reference
A system of cross references, like those found in most modern reference Bibles or in dedicated works such as "The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge," (which contains over 600,000 cross references, several different indexes, and a comprehensive note system) can refer you to other passages that relate to the one being studied. Cross references are quite possibly the single most important and useful Bible study tool available as they operate on the foundational principle of allowing the Bible to be its own interpreter. When purchasing a study Bible it is a good idea to review the type of cross referencing system it employs as well as the quantity of references printed. Many of today’s study Bibles have an average of 50,000 cross references. A concordance, such as those mentioned above, is useful in cross referencing specific words and phrases so that methods of usage of a specific word sequence may be discovered but a good cross reference system allows you to follow concepts and ideas throughout the Bible as well as specific words and phrases.
How to use this tool
a. Cross references, either in a study Bible or in a stand alone resource, will indicate to which words the cross references apply by a letter, symbol or some other method.
b. Give yourself a lot of time to properly explore the cross references, especially if using a resource such as The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge (which contains several hundred thousand cross references).
c. Avoid distraction. As you explore the cross references you will come across verses which seem to require follow up (this is especially true if you are using a computer based study Bible). Stay close to your primary area of inquiry and follow the side trails as time permits.
d. If possible use two Bibles, one to keep open to the passage you are studying and the second with which to look up the various cross references.
8 - Commentary
Although somewhat limited in value to inductive Bible study (since it confines us to an other’s understanding of a given passage) a good commentary can be beneficial in opening our minds to thoughts of a passage that we may otherwise have neglected or not noticed. Most generally available modern commentaries are reprints of such classics as that of Matthew Henry, as well as compendiums of thought by (usually) trustworthy modern scholars.
Such a commentary can shed additional historical or theological light on the passage being studied and we can gain great benefit from the knowledge of those who have made it their life's work to make available further information pertaining to the Bible. In many instances a great deal of background research into the times of the passage has been done by the commentator which can be of great value to our own study. Used with care and prayer a commentary can significantly increase the rewards of our Bible study.
It is important to remember that in inductive Bible study you are seeking your interpretation of the Bible as guided by the Holy Spirit and so a commentary should not generally be referred to until you are fairly certain that you have gained an understanding of the passage in question and require the corroboration and/or further information that a commentary can provide. Many modern study Bibles also include short, in context commentary as a part of their system of helps, the NIV Study Bible and the Life Application Study Bible are notable examples of this technique which, while useful, presents the constant temptation to forgo one's own analysis of the Bible in favour of that which has been presented to us by others..
One important point to remember when employing a commentary is that, while commentaries are generally the trustworthy works of scholars who have made careful study of the Bible, we should not be afraid to suspect the work of even the most trusted source if it seems at variance with an honest interpretation after diligent study. The temptation writers of commentaries face is to comment on everything, even if in some instances no such commentary is warranted. Occasionally the commentator's desire to convey information outpaces his understanding of the passage. The temptation also exists to allegorize passages that seem to defy belief.
A case in point is found in the book of the Bible called "Song of Songs." Quite frequently this book is allegorized to be symbolic of the union of Christ and His Church. While this may not be unfaithful to the Scripture this practice does tend to overlook the obvious celebration of human sexuality that is enjoyed by the main characters. But maintaining that the "Song of Songs" is no more than such a celebration may be as much an injustice to the text as it would be to maintain that it is no more than an allegory.
It is important to remember, therefore, that God does not restrict correct interpretation to the commentators but to those who honestly seek to discover what God is saying in the Scripture. Just be absolutely certain that you are making an honest attempt at interpretation rather than seeking support for your preconceived ideas. Many commentators have much of great value to share with the Bible student but we must stay clear of the trap of allowing their interpretation to overwhelm our own. Treat a commentator as you would a discussion of a Bible passage with an other, as a sounding board for your ideas and conclusions but with a willingness to have your mind changed or the courage to remain firm on an honest interpretation. Keep in mind that your interpretation of the Bible is also a commentary of sorts and is subject to the same benefits and limitations of any other commentary.
How to use this tool
a. Because we have an innate tendency to trust what our teachers tell us try to gain some idea of the meaning of a passage on your own before consulting a commentary. This way you will be able to evaluate your conclusions against those of the commentary and minimize the risk of simply accepting what the commentary says without question.
b. As commentators will often have differing perspectives on a given passage it is a good idea to compare commentaries against each other for more balanced research as well as to guard against potential false teaching.
c. Commentaries also differ in style. A devotional commentary, such as that by Matthew Henry, will look at a passage from a different viewpoint than a theological commentary, such as that by John Gill. Being aware of the style of the commentary you use will help you to get the most out of it.
An excellent commentary is Matthew Henry's Commentary
Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Volume 1)
Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Volume 2)
Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Volume 3)
Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Volume 4)
Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Volume 5)
Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Volume 6)
Since we live in a time removed, at best, by twenty centuries from that of the writers of the Bible it is almost impossible for us to react to the Bible's teaching as did the early believers. Our culture, our lifestyles, even our way of thought, all are radically different from what was normal in the days when the Bible was being written. Some tools that can help us to better understand what life was like back then and how the Bible would have been received are books that tell us about the culture of the day. Bible handbooks are a basic tool of this category and Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias. are more advanced devices serving the same purpose. What are really useful, however, are books that illustrate in detail the way in which life was lived back in Bible times as they can help bridge the gap of years and allow you to, as much as possible, pick up on the finer points of ancient culture. While we can never enjoy an intimacy with the culture of the times of the Bible as its inhabitants did such resources can serve to minimize the bias our own cultural experience has upon our study.
10 - Dictionary
Since languages change over time no-one can have a complete grasp of even their native language. It is highly recommended that you make use of a dictionary of your native language, or the language of the other Bible study tools you are using so that words with which you are unfamiliar or which may have dual meanings or which may have had their meaning changed since the word was first used may be properly understood. Most modern translations employ common speech, especially those of the Dynamic Equivalence and Paraphrase methods of translation, and as a consequence you may not require a dictionary of your language at every Bible study but keep one handy for those times when a word you encounter ends up surprising or puzzling you.
Use Bible reference books to increase your understanding of the Bible. Recommend buying a Bible map book with history and culture included to use with reading any book of the Bible. Example for under $12.00 here to put in back of your Bible or a Bible map atlas with the location then and now with Biblical background and culture for under $25.00. In any type study method you choose, having a map, history and culture of that time period as you are reading makes God's journey through the Bible come alive.
Knowing a bit about the life and times, history and culture of people in Bible lands can be fascinating and very helpful. You can also for free use our maps, archaeology and Bible Lands online or download for free and print out and keep a copy in your Bible.
The Bible Atlas (PDF Download)
Maps and Figures (PDF Download)
Smith Bible Atlas (Read online on our sister website)
Bible Times Maps (Read online on our sister website)
Biblical Times Maps (Read online on our sister website)
12 - Computer Software
With the advent of inexpensive personal computers many of the above tools have been migrated into software applications that can take advantage of the incredible speed of information processing and retrieval of these devices. Most Bible study programs come equipped with the tools mentioned above but it is always a good idea to confirm this before you buy a given product. A well designed Bible study program makes it possible to perform an amazing amount of study in a much more efficient manner than would be possible with books and paper.
An added advantage of such software lies in the ability to perform complex word and phrase searches such as finding all verses that contain the word "Jesus" but do not contain the word "Christ;" a capability that is very difficult to implement using any other tools. Bible software can range from packages costing several hundreds of dollars to those that may be distributed freely.
a. My preferred Bible study software is "e-Sword" which consists of hundreds of megabytes of material, most of which is free and of very high quality. This program is constantly being improved for ease of use and additional modules are freely available at a multitude of internet sites.
b. An other free electronic Bible of very high quality is the "Online Bible" which contains a slightly different set of features and user interface than the "Online Bible" but which is equally functional. Many of its features are unique and truly valuable. Both "e-Sword" and the "Online Bible" also contain extensive maps, charts and images to enhance your study and understanding of the Bible.
c. Logos is the name of a commercial software package with an extremely good reputation and which is available in several price ranges with a corresponding range of features.
d. Very highly recommended freeware application is Olive Tree. With a wide variety of modules and functionality.
e. If you own a Pocket PC you will be very well served by the Pocket PC version of e-Sword. I am using this on my own Pocket PC as my primary devotional and mobile Bible study tool. I cannot recommend Pocket e-Sword highly enough.
f. One final program I would like to recommend is "The Scripture Memory System." Created by Stephen Simpson "The Scripture Memory System" is a program designed to help you systematically memorize portions of Scripture. Though not a Bible study tool per se "The Scripture Memory System" is a valuable tool to help you to keep the word of God on your mind at all times and there is no better way to come to an understanding of the Bible than to meditate upon it.
The Sword Project (Cross Wire Bible Society)
Bible Pro for Windows
The Olive Tree Bible App
ESV CrossWay - Bible App
Blue Letter Bible
Logos Bible Study and Reading
Word search Starter.
Bible App for Kids
An open and willing heart. Without this most important tool we will never profit from our study, no matter how much we may learn. We must be willing to be taught when ever we approach the Bible, allowing it to be an instrument of change in our lives rather than bending it to support our treasured ideas. The word of God possesses great power but only if it is studied honestly and with a willingness to allow God to speak through it to us. As we read the Bible we must constantly be thinking of what the Bible is telling us, not what we want it to tell us.
Prior to any study of the Bible it is important to realize that the composition of the text can and does play an important role in conveying a written message to its reader, regardless of the type of writing that is being studied. We will frequently make use of the rules of composition unconsciously as we read or write. In her book How to Study Your Bible Kay Arthur lists several compositional tools to look for:
Introduction - Presents the information that the reader will need in order to understand what is to follow.
Comparison - Holding one person, event or thing against another in order to show similarities between them
Contrast - Holding one person, event or thing against another in order to show differences between them
Repetition - Use of a word, phrase or concept more than once in order to emphasize and/or call the audience's attention to the idea being conveyed
Progression - The development of an idea or theme as the reader progresses through the passage to increase the reader's understanding by degrees
Climax - The use of progression to develop an idea or theme to a critical point
Pivotal Point - A change in the overall direction of the passage where ideas on one side of the pivotal point differ in some way from ideas on the other side
Radiation - The central point of a passage which can be either the target or source of all other points in the passage
Interchange - The author switches between two or more significant themes in a sequential manner
General to Particular - The passage moves from discussing a theme in global terms to covering the same theme in more detailed terms, can also be reversed to move from detailed coverage of a theme to a more general coverage of the same theme
Cause and Effect - The passage progresses one action to subsequent actions caused by the first, can also be reversed so that caused events are traced back to their sources
Analysis - The author presents an idea and proceeds to analyze the idea
Interrogation - The author presents a question to the reader and follows by presenting the answer
Summarization - The author presents an overview of what has been said, reviewing the principal points and making appropriate concluding comments
The Bible is actually a collection of works composed over great spans of time by various authors who each had a unique message and a unique style of writing in which to present this message. Because of this the Bible contains writings of several genres, or literary styles. Each genre is suited to the message that is being used to present but in order to understand the message being presented we must first know how to approach the genre itself. The section above entitled The Structure of the Bible gives a generalization of the genre that each book of the Bible falls into. Within each book, however, various genres may be present. The book of Isaiah is an excellent example of the mixture of the historical, prophetic, poetic, and narrative genres. Below are listed the principle genres found in the Bible with some suggestions as to how they are best to be treated.
At even a casual reading it becomes evident that the Bible is comprised of many different literary formats each of which is utilized to a different end. Correctly identifying the various types of writing in the Bible is a skill that will enhance your personal Bible study in allowing you to properly interpret the words you are reading. Where the poetic passages allow for incredible imagery, powerful expressions of thought, and great lyrical beauty the narrative passages are better suited to the representation of historic details and technical descriptions. The genealogical and prophetic passages are also used to better present the material being presented by each. Understanding how each genre is used will assist you as you seek to discover the meaning of any passage being studied.
The chief characteristic of Hebrew poetry is that it is written not to rhyme as is our western poetry but rather as a progression of thought or ideas. This form of poetry is called parallelism and refers to a style of writing that makes use of couplets, two lines usually but sometimes three or four, that vary in their relationship to each other. A tremendous asset of this style of poetry is that it is translatable into a form that retains the splendour of the original since it is not a system of rhyme and rhythm so much as a sequence of thought that is being translated.
In western culture we consider poetry (or song) as nothing more than entertainment but poetry is no less important a means of communication than, say, a historical narrative. Neither is poetry less capable of conveying information than a newspaper although it is in a more subtle form. Words are used sparingly in poetry and frequently convey ideas larger than they would if used in prose. Each word in a poem is therefore of utmost value and has far greater significance than it would normally have if found in any other form of writing. Poetry is a largely symbolic form of expression; each line of a poem may have greater impact and depth than paragraphs of prose (though it is possible for prose to take on some of the aspects of poetry).
Some of the various types of Hebrew poetic parallelism are:
1. Antithetic parallelism - each line expresses opposing, or contradictory thoughts.
"The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD:
but the prayer of the upright is his delight."
2. Synonymous parallelism - each line expresses a similar thought, the second repeating the first for purposes of emphasis or clarity. The second line thus often sheds additional light on the first.
Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
There are several variations of synonymous parallelism, two of which are listed below:
3. Climactic parallelism – the second line echoes a portion of the first and adds to it.
My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O LORD;
in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up.
4 - Emblematic parallelism - one line is literal and the other is figurative or symbolic.
I am weary with my groaning;
all the night make I my bed to swim;
I water my couch with my tears.
5 - Synthetic parallelism - the first line is added to by the second which expresses a complimentary thought and often gives the reason for the first.
Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
nor standeth in the way of sinners,
nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
Wisdom Literature consists of Proverbs laid out in the format of Hebrew poetry but which generally do not have the same style or impact of poetry proper. Proverbs by their very nature are statements (usually couplets of contrasting ideas) giving generalizations describing how life in general goes for the subject of the proverb. Where poetry may take some time to develop a theme to maturity the proverbs are most often single statements or pairs of statements, though occasionally a series of proverbs be used to develop a single theme (such as occurs in the treatment of the theme of wisdom in the book of Ecclesiastes).
It is important to realize that proverbs do not usually have universal application nor are they usually universal truths but are more along the line of rules of thumb with a religious meaning, although many proverbs may be interpreted to be of eternal significance in describing the final outcome of the righteous and the rebellious. Proverbs must be treated with as much care as the rest of the Bible to determine how they are to be applied to our lives today.
As the name indicates narrative literature is that which lays out its material in a prose style of writing. Information is presented without adornment, poetic structures may be inserted into the text but overall the passage resembles a modern novel in its design. Our concept of discrete sentences, paragraphs, and chapters would be alien to the ancient Hebrew writers, in fact many of the oldest manuscript copies have no sentence or paragraph breaks at all. One must be careful to follow the progression of thought contained by the passage itself apart from the occasionally arbitrary sentence, paragraph, verse, and chapter structure placed upon it by various translators and scholars.
A subset of the narrative form is historical writing which differs from the narrative mainly in the sense of its view of time. Narrative is generally written with regard the present while history is written with regard to the past, and in the case of the books of the kings of Israel and Judah is done so as to present a moral standpoint; contrasting the actions of the various kings to that desired by God. Historical writing also allows present day readers to view past events as though they were there. In this regard Genesis is historic in that Moses wrote what God revealed to him of events that occurred at times ranging from the recent past to events of several thousands of years in the past. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, however, are narrative because Moses is primarily writing about events as they occur and most certainly within the memories of people still alive at the time of the writing.
Just as letters today are personal communications between an author and a specific recipient so the letters found in the Bible are personal communications between authors and specific recipients with the added feature that they were most likely circulated to a wider audience either after the original recipients were finished with them or out of obedience to the wishes of the authors. Again, just as we read our own letters in their entirety, Biblical letters should be read, if at all possible, from start to finish in a single sitting to grasp the full impact of the purpose, or occasion, of the letter and the points that the author is making. More so than for any other genre of writing is the force of the letter destroyed if it is read in bits and pieces here and there. Larger letters, such as Paul's letter to the church in Rome, may not suffer as much as the smaller letters in being read in sections, but even these were received by their recipients as a single communication from someone who cared deeply for them.
Imagine then how each letter would have been studied as we today would study a letter received from a loved one from whom we did not hear often enough. We would do well to approach the letters in the Bible in the same way, treating them as we would a letter from a distant and dear friend, poring over each word and working to understand the overall theme of this work that was the only way in which its author could communicate.
The Israelites placed a great value on genealogical records so that each person's familial background would be understood. Liberties were taken with the genealogies on some occasions for reasons of emphasis; an example being the division of the generations of Jesus Christ as recounted in Matthew 1 into three tidy groups of fourteen. This would be done as a memory device and possible for literary symmetry and in no way takes from the accuracy of the genealogy in this particular instance as its stated purpose was to prove that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
That names have been omitted from this record, indicating that certain generations have been left out, does not overwhelm its goal. The genealogies of the book of Genesis may also contain gaps but in this case they are often accompanied by a number of years assigned to each individual. In this case the purpose of the genealogy would be to place certain events and people in time so that it is much less likely for generations to have been skipped.
The genealogical records within the Bible serve three primary functions:
a. Domestic – Used to determine the individual’s social position, privileges, and obligations; such as the rights falling upon the first born son.
b. Political – Used to determine hereditary office, as well as to settle legal claims such as that pictured in the book of Ruth.
c. Religious – Used to establish membership, function, and descent of priestly and levitical duties and position.
Much of the Bible is composed of prophecy which, though a genre of writing, can occur in the form of poetry, prose, or narrative. Taken as a whole the Old Testament of the Bible can be viewed as an ongoing prophecy of the coming Messiah that is fulfilled in part at the nativity. A prophet is one who speaks the words of God and has been given specific instructions regarding the content, occasion, and audience of the prophetic message.
Moses, when arguing with God at the burning bush about his inability to perform the task to which God was calling him was told that his brother Aaron was coming to look for him and would accompany Moses on his mission. God specifically told Moses that he would be as God to Aaron and that Aaron would say and do all that Moses commanded him to say and do. It is in this context that the prophet acted as the mouthpiece of God.
The prophet (either man or woman) would be given a direct message from God to be delivered to whomever God commanded, in what ever form God desired. Prophecy in the Bible ranges from the height of human expression (as in the book of Isaiah) to some of the most humiliating acts (as in Ezekiel eating food cooked over animal waste for one of his prophecies) to the depth of human grief (Ezekiel, again, whose actions concerning the death of his wife were symbolic of the actions of God over the destruction of Jerusalem).
Prophecy is very often symbolic and, as will be seen below, often indicates more than one event of similar character separated by large spans of time. This actually leads to one of the dangers of studying prophecy in that we often seek to interpret some of the more spectacular prophetic passages (such as Revelation) within our current context, interpreting the passage in the light of recent events. While this is a valid exercise and indeed is how prophecy is to be treated we often embark on this exercise seeking support for our conclusions rather than to have our conclusions guided by the prophecy.
Prophecy is at the same time a perfect guide to the future and an poor guide to the future. It is a perfect guide because God through prophecy has told/is telling us what will occur and He is utterly trustworthy. It is a poor guide because we fall into the trap of believing that the prophecy will be fulfilled in our time.
It is crucial in the study of prophecy to have a reasonable view of history and the flow of events. Prophecies of the destruction of Israel, Judah, or various other nations of the time only become clear when we understand how history happened at the time under question. Likewise, prophecies of future events such as the second coming of Christ or the rise of the anti-Christ can only make sense when we understand what has happened in the world since the time the prophecies were made and even, in some schools of thought, what has happened since creation.
Prophecy in general encompasses both declarative and predictive forms, though we are by far more familiar with the later. It is very important when reading prophecy to have an understanding of history.
A brief breakdown of both types follows:
a. Declarative Prophecy
In this sense the prophet is one who speaks for an other, carrying the context of the prophet being the mouth through whom the other speaks. Although the prophet is generally understood to be speaking for God it is possible for the prophet to speak for an other human as well. In the Old Testament we have an example of the declarative prophet in the relationship between Moses and his older brother Aaron:
Exodus 4:14-16 "So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses, and He said: "Is not Aaron the Levite your brother? I know that he can speak well. And look, he is also coming out to meet you. When he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. "Now you shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth. And I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will teach you what you shall do. "So he shall be your spokesman to the people. And he himself shall be as a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God."
Exodus 7:1 So the LORD said to Moses: "See, I have made you as God to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet."
In this case Moses would be the speaker for God Himself as the prophet of God and Aaron in turn would speak for Moses as the prophet of Moses.
b. Predictive Prophecy
This form of prophecy is concerned with what we generally view as the function of the prophet: The prophet predicts events yet to occur, often speaking of them as though they are accomplished fact as a reflection of the power of God’s word. There are two types of predictive prophecy: That which is immediately fulfilled and that which is fulfilled at some later point in time. A brief definition of both types appears below:
1 - Immediate fulfillment
In which the prophecy is fulfilled shortly after it is spoken and is a key in determining if the one who claims to be a prophet truly is a prophet, as seen below:
Deuteronomy 18:21-22 "And if you say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?’ "when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him."
An example of an immediate predictive prophecy is shown below:
Exodus 14:1-5 "Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: "Speak to the children of Israel, that they turn and camp before Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, opposite Baal Zephon; you shall camp before it by the sea. "For Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel, ‘They are bewildered by the land; the wilderness has closed them in.’ "Then I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that he will pursue them; and I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD." And they did so. Now it was told the king of Egypt that the people had fled, and the heart of Pharaoh and his servants was turned against the people; and they said, "Why have we done this, that we have let Israel go from serving us?"
2 - Delayed fulfillment
In which the prophecy is not fulfilled immediately but is delayed by a variable period of time. The prophecies of Christ's birth and ministry were fulfilled after centuries, those concerning His return are yet to be fulfilled. Most good study Bibles will include a list of at least some of the prophecies made concerning Jesus Christ. An example of a prophecy of Christ that has a delayed fulfillment is shown below:
Deuteronomy 18:15-19 "The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, "according to all you desired of the LORD your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.’ "And the LORD said to me: ‘What they have spoken is good. ‘I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. ‘And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him."
There are frequent occurrences in the bible where both types of predictive prophecy are combined. In these cases the prophecy of a significant event to take place in the future is immediately fulfilled as a sign confirming the more complete fulfillment, or simply as a blessing. Many examples of this type of prophecy are found in the book of Isaiah one of which is used to apply as a confirmation of Isaiah's own prophetic ministry and that of Jesus Christ:
Isaiah 61:1-3 "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, Because the LORD has anointed Me To preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn, To console those who mourn in Zion, To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness, The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified."
Prophetic passages in the Bible can be found in a variety of literary forms and can range in length from several words to several pages of text. The prophet’s personal response to the message that has been received from God is also frequently found within prophetic literature. One example of this occurs in Isaiah 21 where Isaiah describes the physical effect of God’s proclamation against Babylon upon his own body:
The prophecy of Habakkuk also includes personal commentary on God’s message to the extent that the entirety of his prophecy is in the form of a discussion between God and himself.
Prophecy is often regarded by Bible students as the most difficult literary form within the Bible to interpret. While this is often true the study of prophecy is also extremely rewarding. By means of prayerful contemplation of prophecy the Christian gains a wonderful sense of the power of God and the effectiveness of His plan. As well, some of the most beautiful passages in the Bible are prophecies in poetic form that concern the advent and mission of Jesus Christ. In one sense the entire Old Testament is prophetic in that Christ is foreshadowed within its text. For us to gain the greatest benefit from our study of prophecy some guidelines for interpretation are now given:
a. Study the New Testament treatment of Old Testament prophecies and how the New Testament authors come to regard the prophecies as being fulfilled (this can also act as a guide to our own study of the Bible as a whole, we would not be going far wrong if we were to treat the entire Bible as characters in the New Testament treated the Old Testament).
b. As many prophecies contain both an immediate and a delayed fulfillment we must for each prophecy attempt to grasp the meaning for the people who would originally have heard it, its near fulfillment, and continue by studying its practical message for Christians of all times, its delayed fulfillment.
c. Always consider the literal meaning of the prophecy before assigning some symbolic understanding that may or may not be accurate. William of Occam was reported to have said: "If something can be interpreted without assuming a complicated hypothesis, there is no ground for assuming that hypothesis." This is known as Occam’s razor and it fully applies to Bible study. Do not assume a complex interpretation of the Bible when the Bible itself gives no clear support for such an interpretation.
d. Look within the prophecy for other figures of speech to see how they are used, how they may apply to the prophecy, and why they were employed in the first place.
A symbol is something which contains a meaning beyond what is regarded as the normal meaning. In the Bible symbols are most frequently found in the prophetic writings but they occur throughout the Bible and must always be interpreted with attention being paid to the context surrounding the symbol. Symbols can be of almost any form such as number, colour, appearance, and imagery.
1 - Numbers
Numbers often used as symbols in the Bible, especially in the books of Daniel and Revelation. Below is a list of common interpretations of the symbolic value of numbers as they are used in the Bible (note that this list is not exhaustive, merely a guide):
1 – unity, independent existence, the number from which all others descend
2 – strengthening, confirmation, increase of courage and/or strength
3 – the divine number of God, symbol of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
3 ½ – incompleteness, unattained or anticipated fulfillment, imperfection; 42 months; 1,260 days; "times, time, and half a time" – see especially the prophecies found in the books of Daniel and Revelation for usage of this number
4 – representative of the world or mankind
5 – the number of the complete and normal human being
6 – incompleteness, one short of 7
7 – perfection (3 + 4), significant of the union of heaven and earth - predominant in Genesis and Revelation
10 – human perfection and wholeness (2 x 5)
12 – Christian endeavour in the world (3 x 4) – as in the 12 tribes of Israel
24 – perfection and wholeness of Christian endeavour in the world (2 x 12) – reflected in the 24 elders that bow before the throne of God in heaven, see Revelation 4:4
40 – a generation, human activity in the world, testing and/or judgement (4 x 10)
70 – very sacred, completeness and perfection (7 x 10)
1,000 – ultimate completeness and perfection (10 x 10 x 10)
144,000 – indicates the absolute security of the people of God of all generations (12 x 12 x 1,000)
2 - Colours
Some interpretations of colours as symbols follow:
Black – famine/need/death (Rev. 6:5-6)
Red – war (Rev. 6:4)
White – conquering (Rev. 6:2), purity (Isaiah 1:18)
3 - Objects
Objects, both living and dead, are often used to exemplify broad themes. The use of objects as symbols include:
Animal (often described as having horns) – Kingdom or nation (Dan. 8; Rev. 13)
Horn – King, emperor or ruler of a kingdom or nation, either physical or spiritual; size occasionally indicates significance, the horn representing Alexander the Great is described as "conspicuous" (Dan. 8:5)
Woman – Nation or people:
i) Whore or prostitute when describing an evil or fallen people (Rev. 17);
ii) Wife, bride or daughter when describing a holy, redeemed or chosen people (Rev. 19)
iii) Mother when describing the nation of Israel; specifically when portrayed as giving birth to one who would rule the nations (Rev. 12).
The general definition of a type is that it is a divinely purposed literal reality in the Old Testament that foreshadows a spiritual reality in the New Testament. Types may be persons, places, objects, events, institutions, and offices; the anti-type (New Testament fulfillment) of which should always be clear. There is often the temptation to see a type where none exists, the relationship between the type and the anti-type does not have to be strained if it exist the relationship should be obvious.
Two examples of the types that appear in the Bible are:
1 - The lifting up of the brass serpent in the wilderness as a type of the lifting up of Christ on the cross at His crucifixion. The scripture references are Numbers 21:4-9 with John 3:14-15.
Numbers 21:4-9 "Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread." So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD that He take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live." So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived."
John 3:14-15 "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, "that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."
2 - The Passover celebration of the Israelite nation as a type of the atoning sacrifice of Christ on our behalf. The scripture references are Exodus 12:3-13 with 1 Corinthians 5:7-8
Exodus 12:3-13 "Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying: On the tenth day of this month every man shall take for himself a lamb, according to the house of his father, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for the lamb, let him and his neighbor next to his house take it according to the number of the persons; according to each man’s need you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats. Now you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month. Then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at twilight. And they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it. Then they shall eat the flesh on that night; roasted in fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat it raw, nor boiled at all with water, but roasted in fire—its head with its legs and its entrails. You shall let none of it remain until morning, and what remains of it until morning you shall burn with fire. And thus you shall eat it: with a belt on your waist, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. So you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’S Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD. Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt."
1 Corinthians 5:7-8 "Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."
In each of the preceding examples the type and its anti-type are clearly defined and interpreted by the Bible.
A figure of speech is a word or phrase that is used to convey something beyond its ordinary meaning. An example of figure of speech would be to say that "The Sun has set." The Sun has not actually set but has become hidden beyond the edge of the Earth due the Earth's own rotation, we say that it has set but we are conveying information of an entirely different sort. It is clear that we are using a figure of speech because the context of the expression has been established over time and it has become understood that the obvious meaning of the figure of speech is not the meaning that is intended and that we are speaking of things as they appear, not as they are.
It is important to regard the Biblical context of each figure of speech as it is encountered in order to interpret properly what is being said, for often the opposite of what seems to be true will be used and will only become apparent through reading the surrounding verses. Several types of figures of speech are:
1 - Parables and Allegories
Stories told for the purpose of driving home a specific idea or collection of ideas.
2 - Parable
A parable is a story that is true to life but is not usually an event that has actually occurred (much like the novels of our day) and may be considered to be an extended simile (see below). The parable is usually designed to teach one main point, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan is used by Jesus to teach the concept of loving one’s neighbour. Parables are generally found in the gospels and are usually introduced by a phrase similar to this: "And Jesus spoke this parable," an example is below:
Luke 5:36-39 Then He spoke a parable to them: "No one puts a piece from a new garment on an old one; otherwise the new makes a tear, and also the piece that was taken out of the new does not match the old. 37 "And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 "But new wine must be put into new wineskins, and both are preserved. 39 "And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better.’"
Some guidelines for interpreting parables are as follows:
a. Take note of the actual meaning of the story.
b. Study the occasion that prompted the parable if it is given, this is the context.
c. Find the central point of the parable
d. Compare this point with the teaching of the Bible.
e. If there seems to be some interpretive problem obtain what information you are able relating to the cultural background of the story and the people it was told to.
f. Resist the temptation to allegorize the parable, a parable is a sermon of one point and frequently the details of the parable merely exist to set off the main point and do not have significance in and of themselves.
3 - Allegory
An allegory is a story that is usually not true to life and may be considered to be an extended metaphor (see below). An example of an allegory is shown below:
John 15:1-8 - 1 "I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples."
The allegory usually teaches several points but may concentrate upon one or two of significance. Some useful steps for interpreting allegories are as follows:
a. Note the details and features of the allegory
b. Note any interpretation that is given by the story teller for the various details
c. Consider the other features of the allegory and see if a meaning can be derived for them from other passages
d. Do not try to identify all the details of an allegory, some will just not fit into any interpretive scheme since they exist solely for the purpose of setting off the main points
4 - Figures of comparison
One item being compared to an other.
5 - Metaphor
An implied comparison between two dissimilar items as in: "My God is the rock of my refuge." (Psalm 94:22)
6 - Simile
A comparison between two things usually using the words like or as, as in: "His heart is as firm as a stone." (Job 41:24)
7 - Figures of relation
The substitution of one word for an other that is related to it.
8 - Metonymy
A figure of speech in which an idea is deduced or named through the use of a term indicating an associated idea, as in: "When Moses is read" (2 Corinthians 3:15) to refer to the writings of Moses rather than the person of Moses.
9 - Synecdoche
The use of a specific term in place of a general term, or vice versa, as in: "Then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave," (Genesis 42:38) which refers not only to the gray hairs on the man's head but to the man himself.
Other Figures of Speech
1 - Anthropomorphism
Speaking of God, either by man or by God Himself, as though He had human body and formation. Although man has been created in God’s image, and Jesus Himself ascended into heaven in human form, it is not necessarily the case that God looks just as we do. Creation in His image is generally believed to refer to our abilities of reason, self-consideration, intelligence, and our possession of a soul. When anthropomorphism is used it gives vivid imagery to the acts, thoughts, and will of God.
2 - Apostrophe
This occurs when the writer directly addresses things or persons that are either absent or imaginary, as in: "Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon." (Joshua 10:12)
3 - Euphemism
The substitution of a more agreeable expression for one less accepted, as in the use of "He fell asleep" in the place of "He died."
4 - Hyperbole
A deliberate exaggeration for the purpose of emphasizing the stated point, as in: "I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears." (Psalm 6:6)
5 - Interrogation
Essentially a rhetorical question to which the answer is obvious and does not need to be given, as in: "Is any thing too hard for the LORD?" (Genesis 18:14). The question of Jesus upon the cross is also a rhetorical question: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46)
6 - Irony
In which the opposite of the intended meaning is stated in order to emphasize or call attention to the intended meaning, revealed by tone of voice in living people and by the context when written. In 2 Samuel 6:20 King David's wife says, "How glorious was the king of Israel today." The context of the verse shows clearly that she was telling him how she thought he had actually dishonored himself.
7 - Litotes
Saying something by denying its opposite, as in the use of "He is not far off" in the place of "He is near."
8 - Personification
The writer speaks about, not to, a non-personal or non-living thing as though it had human characteristics, as in: "Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together." (Psalms 98:8)
9 - Pleonasm
The use of superfluous words, as in: "according to all that we have heard with our ears." (2 Samuel 7:22)
One must always be careful to observe the context of any figure of speech or literary device as the context will always allow us to determine the cause and situation for any specific passage. We cannot isolate discrete passages from their context at the risk of greatly misrepresenting the truth of the Bible. An example of this taken to the extreme is found in the Bible student who took the following two passages out of their context:
Matthew 27:3-5 "Then Judas, His betrayer, seeing that He had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood." And they said, "What is that to us? You see to it!" Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself."
Luke 10:37 "...Go and do likewise."
It is obvious from this example that the context is important to the proper understanding of any passage within the Bible if we are to remain true to its teaching.
As noted above there are various genres of writing found within the Bible, each of which requires our attention in a different way just as we read newspapers, novels and wills in different ways. Of primary importance is to remember that the Bible is not merely a collection of various literary genres but that it represents God's revelation of Himself (and of His actions in history) to man.
Typically, the biographical/historical sections of the Bible present events that have occurred in time and as such are similar to the newspapers, historical reference works and biographies of our day. The primary distinction of the Biblical material is, however, that it is presented in the context of God's activity throughout history (preceding time, during time and after time) to work out His plan of salvation for mankind. Consequently there are deeper meanings and greater significance to the Biblical historical narratives than would be given to their modern counterparts.
Many have said that the Bible is a historical document and to some extent it is in that it records events and describes individuals in a historical context. In this regard it can be read as history and much useful information can be received. But the Bible is more than a mere historical document and, just as we read a newspaper seeking to understand the bias/viewpoint of its contributors, so we should read the historical portions the Bible within the greater context of God's interaction with humanity to afford its redemption.
2 - Poetry
Those being a poet really greatly appreciative of the poetry found in the Bible and how it can be used to convey vast concepts in an efficient and beautiful manner. However, one must not discard what is taught by Biblical poetry simply because it is poetry and therefore not to be taken seriously. Poetry is a form of writing that relies greatly on the reader's knowledge to teach the ideas that it is being used to teach; it is, for lack of a better example, a more "emotional" method of communication and as such can often be used to say in a word or two what prose would require sentences or paragraphs to communicate.
Poetry is used in the Bible in much the same way as hymns are used in our churches or songs, such as "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know," are used to teach our children the truths of God. Poetry is not necessarily to be taken literally as it often employs imagery and other literary devices to transmit its message but some poetry, such as Psalm 139, is extremely literal in their presentation of truth. It is very important to keep in mind the context of the writer, as it is with any style of writing, in order to best understand the idea that the writer is trying to communicate.
3 - Prophecy
Prophecy is not really a genre of writing but a style of writing (actually, this can also be said for the other genres listed here but is more evident in prophetic writing). Prophecy occurs in poetic form (most spectacularly in the prophecies of Isaiah), in historical narrative (such as occurred between God and Abraham when God promised Abraham a son) and in a variety of other literary genres.
Its most notable feature is that it is declarative, speaking of events that are not as though they are, and in so doing shows that the purposes of God cannot and will not be thwarted. However, the surety that God's word will be fulfilled does not allow us to apply prophetic teaching to every event that occurs, as has been said elsewhere "Prophecy is a poor guide to the future." Often such application is the result of a very narrow understanding of a very limited group of prophecies. God does not and has not spoken to us in bits and pieces but in the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and God's ultimate revelation to man.
Prior to Jesus' own ministry, death and resurrection very few of His contemporaries understood how He was the fulfillment of prophecy. Subsequent to that, however, it became very clear, to the point that we now see that then entire Old Testament can be viewed as an arrow pointing directly at Jesus. In the same way the events of today cannot usually be understood in light of Biblical prophecy until that prophecy is completely fulfilled. Paul makes reference to this when he writes to the Corinthian church that while on earth he sees things as though through a mirror in Heaven he will see things perfectly. We await that day and know that as well as we understand things now we will understand them perfectly when we stand in His presence.
4 - Teaching
In one sense the entire Bible is a textbook, not of history or ancient styles of writing, but of God. In the Bible we are studying God. What is more is that it is a textbook of His own design and therefore ultimately reliable. Each page of the Bible is a lesson and we will do ourselves an injustice if we read the Bible without attempting to apply its lessons to our lives.
Many guides to Bible study will encourage the Bible student to compare various Bible translations to have a good understanding of what the Bible is saying in a particular passage. But, how can we do this since most of us have little or no understanding of the languages that the writers of the Bible used and have not had sufficient education to accurately determine which translation is correct in the instances where one translation uses different words or phrasing than an other translation.
One of the best methods of comparing translations is to read the passage in question several times in your favourite translation. Read it until you are familiar with the flow of the passage, the words that the translators used and how they determine your understanding of the passage. Once you have familiarized yourself with the passage in your translation of choice read it several times in one or more alternate translations. Make notes of instances where you feel the alternate translation says things differently than the first translation did. Then use various of the tools referred to in the section Important Bible Study Tools to determine why the translations differ; asking yourself questions such as:
- Why did the translators use this particular selection of words?
- Is there a reason why the translations differ?
- Is my understanding of the passage affected by the alternate readings?
Commentaries are quite often useful when comparing translations as many explore these very questions in far greater detail than you or I might be capable of. Of special value is the use of an exhaustive concordance, such as Strong's or Young's (where the words in our modern translations can be traced back to the Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew words of the original writers). With such a concordance, you will be able to see for yourself the various alternatives available to the translators and perhaps learn why they chose the translation that they did.
Remember, all translations, commentaries and other Bible study helps have a bias. Bias is not wrong in and of itself, but it is good to be aware of the particular bias of the author(s) of the tools you are using, especially if that bias is different than your own.
In this section some common errors are explored that will have a negative impact on the value and effectiveness of your Bible study. It is not intended to be exhaustive but shows examples of the grossest errors so that they may more easily be avoided.
We may be tempted when studying the Bible to believe that we already understand what is being said to us, especially when dealing with more familiar passages. Since we do not possess infallibility it is entirely possible that an interpretation of Scripture which we have held for a significant period of time may be in need of correction or of further development. It may even be possible that our interpretation is correct but that more detailed study of the passage is in order.
As much as possible we must put aside our previous conclusions while in Bible study so that the truth of what is being told to us may be unearthed. This is not to say that our initial interpretations are necessarily incorrect but that they cause us to be predisposed to further interpretation that is in favour of our initial interpretations. There is a fine line that needs to be walked here since the building up of a body of doctrine depends by necessity on maintaining a history of previous interpretations and inter-relating them to each other.
In this practice the culture to which the particular passage under investigation was addressed is re-defined in such a way as to dispense with the universal application of an uncomfortable mandate. This practice is most commonly used in instances such as the presentation of a legitimate lifestyle rather than one that is condemned by God. Each passage that speaks out against the practice is re-interpreted in such a way as to make the culture to which it is addressed guilty not of immoral behavior but of an incomplete practice of love.
However, once the Bible is twisted in this way it can be made to say everything anyone would like it to say and it can therefore say nothing at all. It is no longer a guide to Godly behavior but an echo of our own desires, an interesting book which may or may not apply to our lives today, depending on what we wish.
However, the Bible is not a book that addresses itself in one way to the people of one age and in an other way to the people of an other age. It cannot be since the Bible is the word to all ages by an eternal unchanging God. What God demanded of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jerusalem and Rome, he demands of people today since it is His law that determines proper and improper behavior and that law does not change because He does not change.
One of the most common errors is for the student to replace inductive Bible study (exegesis: where meaning is pulled from the Bible) with deductive Bible study (eisegesis: where meaning is pushed into the Bible). The difference between the two lies in the fact that while inductive Bible study (that which is promoted throughout this lesson) seeks to glean knowledge from the Bible, deductive Bible study attempts to use the Bible to support a previously made conclusion.
Inductive Bible study allows the Bible to lead the student.
Deductive Bible study has the student leading the Bible.
It is possible to deduce a correct interpretation as well. It is critical that the student makes a conscious attempt to prevent their preconceptions from interfering with their interpretation. We must remember that God is speaking to us through the Bible as well as through His Spirit, we must allow Him to speak and be guided by Him rather than by our own desires. We must be willing to discard a favored belief if our Bible study shows it to be in error. We must be unwilling to discard a belief that is supported by the Bible even when “wiser minds” inform us to believe otherwise.
This is an error that is all too easy for many of us to fall into and involves analyzing a passage of the Bible to such depth that we overlook the actual significance of the text. An exaggerated example of this can be found in some treatments of John 8:1-11 where various analysts have gone through great effort to determine the means by which the condemned woman was caught in her sin. While in many instances looking at this passage in such detail may be intellectually rewarding such a practice does have the danger of causing us to loose sight of the fact that Jesus, when confronted by a person guilty of a sin worthy of death, did not Himself condemn her; even though He alone met His own criteria for condemnation and punishment. The overwhelming theme of this passage is one of forgiveness and looking too deeply at the events surrounding this theme will distract us from it.
In the study of some passages of the Bible, such as "obscure" sections of prophetic material, we may conclude that since we could never come to an understanding of the passage in question we might as well give up before we even start. What we often fail to understand, however, is that all of the Bible was written by real people in a manner which would be understood by the readers, who were also real people; both with the same failings as we have ourselves.
While those who lived at the times during which the Bible was being written may have had a more intimate connection with the people, places and events that the Bible refers to than we do today, we are no less capable of coming to a proper understanding of what has been written than were they. We may occasionally have to end a study with out the Holy Spirit having given us all the answers we wanted but we are certainly capable of appreciating the answers that we have been given.
Bible study, as has been said before, is not merely an intellectual exercise (where we must collect enough knowledge to gain a proper understanding of the text), nor is it merely a spiritual exercise (where we are given knowledge by the Holy Spirit without studying the text at all). Bible study is a process in which the Holy Spirit guides and give blessing to the diligent student in the process of learning from the word of God. As God spoke at an earlier time.
Jeremiah 29:13 "And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart."
Typical of such error the argument makes sense on the surface, until we come to realize a broader view of what the Bible says.
Frequently, where two or more interpretations of a particular Biblical teaching have gained popularity, it is possible to come to the conclusion that any of the available options is correct and we need merely choose one that suits our fancy. At other times we are told that it does not matter what we believe the Bible teaches about a certain idea so long as we believe something and have good reasons for doing so.
But if the Bible is truly God's authoritative word and our accurate guide in the living of our lives is it possible to be ambivalent about its teachings. Or to put it an other way, if the Bible is God's primary (or a primary) method for communicating His desire to His children how can we then say that what the Bible teaches is indefinite? It must either say one thing or it must say an other but it cannot be made to say both. Once we begin to see the Bible as teaching many apparently conflicting ideas we tend to diminish its authority over our lives.
Indecisiveness on Biblical teaching, or approaching the Bible with the attitude that differing interpretations are equally valid undermines its authority by leading us, and others, to believe that the Bible says nothing definite. It is a legitimate to say that we do not know, that we have not been given understanding in a certain area (for we do not understand prophecy as it was understood in the days of its delivery), but we should never say that conflicting ideas are equally valid for they cannot be, one or the other must be right.
We can sometimes be so intent on finding significance in a Bible passage that we unconsciously overlook an obvious lesson. A case in point can be found in Jesus' teaching on God's provision of food and shelter for the birds:
Matthew 6:26 "Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?"
We often will come from this passage with an assurance of God's concern for our well being. While this is legitimate conclusion it fails to connect God's provision of food for the birds with the observation that the birds themselves are actively involved in the process. We can read this verse and be rightly impressed with God's care for us yet fail to make the connection between the passage and the world it takes its example from, subsequently we make an incomplete interpretation and never come to the realization (from this passage anyway) that we carry a responsibility of care for ourselves as well and must often work hard to receive what God has given us, as do the birds work hard for what God has given them.
This error, also referred to as “proof-texting,” is the practice where a verse or a phrase is isolated from the surrounding text in order prove a point. Many examples of this occur in each case of which the words of the isolated text are completely re-interpreted once they are removed from their surroundings. This is especially prevalent among certain cults that claim to be Christian but are not; such as the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others.. Many non-Christian religions are also very good at proof-texting as well, such as the New Age Movement and the religion of Islam.
While Jesus Himself was often the subject of proof-texting, as can be noticed predominately in the gospel accounts of His life, in each case the text in question is not taken out of its original context but is used to show Jesus’ credentials by means of passages to which most contemporaries would have already been familiar. The error of proof-texting occurs when the original text is interpreted to say that which is in opposition to, or ignorant of, the context in which the text is found.
In reading passages such as 2 Kings chapters 4 through to 6 we may be tempted to concentrate on the more spectacular aspects of the passage and in so doing come to the potentially erroneous conclusion that because we do not have the same ministry as men like Elisha we are not as Godly.
The logical conclusion of such a line of thought would lead us to question the reality of our own salvation and our right to do any Christian ministry at all. While it may be true that we are not as Godly as Elisha, or other great men and women of the Bible, this is not a conclusion that can be supported by merely comparing our activities to the activities of a man moved by God to do great things in His name.
The translation method and style of too many of our modern translations tend to suggest that human opinion is of sufficient authority to modify the reader’s understanding of the text.
1 - Observation - What is being said?
2 - Interpretation - What is being meant?
3 - Correlation - What else is it being said and/or explained?
4 - Application - What will I do about what is being said?
A fifth step to the above which, while closely related to the step of applying what you have learned to your life, is more of a stand-alone practice whose sole purpose is to keep God's word at the forefront of your mind.
5 - Meditation - Keeping the Bible and what it teaches on your mind.
Continue to Part Two: The 12 Bible Study Methods
Continue to Part Three: The Bible Study Charts