Understanding the Bible 1: Opening the Bible
The Bible is a collection of 66 books divided into two parts, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Bible was written over a period of several hundred years. Two languages were used, Hebrew and Greek. It was written by many different authors. But these authors were not just writing their own words. They were writing what the Holy Spirit told them to write. They were inspired by the Holy Spirit
Peter states, “For no prophetic message ever came just from the will of man, but men were under the control of the Holy Spirit as they spoke the message that came from God” (2 Peter 1:21). Every Christian believer should have a time of daily Bible reading and prayer to feed his spirit! But this kind of reading should not take the place of disciplined study of the Word of God. This course will teach you to study the Bible.
Need for Study of Scripture
The ultimate intent of the Bible is to change lives. What you learn from it should make a difference in your attitude and actions. The Holy Spirit is not interested in imparting intellectual knowledge only. His goal is to prepare a man of God spiritually and intellectually for good works. Your goal in understanding Bible truth, then, is to apply it to your life. The classic verse declaring the inspiration of Scripture and the goal of Scripture is 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Read it in your own Bible. Note the goal, “That the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed.” The Word of God can only do this for you as you study its pages. Disciplined study is defined as diligent application of the mind, careful examination of the facts, and deep thought about them. In thinking about the facts, you will draw some conclusions and make some decisions. When these decisions become part of your life, it will become more based on scriptural principles, and you will be fulfilling 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Now let us discuss three ways in which the Bible changes our attitudes and actions.
Only the Bible can answer your questions about life. Left to himself, man does not know how to live or how to die. His behavior is filled with selfishness and greed. His lot is bitterness and despair.
The entrance of the Word of God brings light. God’s rules for living lead to peace, joy, and satisfaction. The second and third chapters of Titus are beautiful chapters on Christian living.
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, and wrong. We were slaves to passions and pleasures of all kinds. We spent our lives in malice and envy; others hated us and we hated them. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior was revealed, he saved us . . . the Holy Spirit . . . gives us new birth and new life . . . (Titus 3:3-5).
Study of Scripture should change our ways of living.
“To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see. It was by their faith that people of ancient times won God’s approval” (Hebrews 11:1- 2). Faith for forgiveness, for understanding God’s plan in the world, for the reality of eternal life in Christ Jesus, all must come from the words of the Bible. Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you bring God’s life-giving Spirit” (John 6:63). Without the Bible to guide him, man puts his faith in wrong things such as idols, forces of nature, or material possessions. Studying the Bible will not only show you the living God who deserves and commands your faith, but the Holy Spirit will use that study to cause faith in God to develop and mature within your heart.
Biblical knowledge of God and His ways brings us the responsibility of sharing that knowledge with others. The world is hungry for the truth of God. It is God’s plan that His kingdom grow because of this principle of sharing. Jesus shared in this way. He taught people, then He sent them to teach others. Luke 10:1 tells of His sending out 72 men ahead of Him into the towns where He was about to go. They could share with others what they had learned from Jesus. We too must share in this way
Approach to a Revealed Book
Revelation is changing divine truth that was formerly unknown and unknowable to knowable and known truth. It is when God makes known His truths to the minds of men. When a Christian believer uses the word “Scripture,” he refers only to the Bible. Christians believe that the Bible is God’s only inspired message to man. Understanding this fact is the necessary starting point for any study of the Bible. Revelation makes the approach to the Bible unique (special, one-of-a-kind) in the three ways listed below.
By spiritual qualification we refer to a spiritual quality that anyone who wishes to correctly understand the Bible must have. Usually, a knowledge of the language is all that is necessary to understand a book. But the Bible is different. To understand Scripture, a certain spiritual understanding is also necessary. God Himself gives such understanding to each person who believes in Jesus Christ as Savior.
Read 1 Corinthians 2:13-15. Answer the two following questions on verse 14. Only one answer is correct for each question.
Supernatural means something which is outside of the natural realm. If something is said to be supernatural, it belongs to an order of things beyond our observable physical universe. Miracles, happenings that cannot be explained by normal means, are said to be supernatural. The Living God of the Bible is a God of miracles. As the Creator of all, He is Lord of all.
The miracles you will read about in the Bible are not imaginary events such as you might find in folk tales or Greek myths. Bible miracles are serious, historical facts. The cloud that led the Israelites (Exodus 40:36) was not an imaginary cloud. When Jesus fed the five thousand (Matthew 14) with five loaves and two fish, you can be sure that the people ate real food and were satisfied, just as it is recorded.
The miracles of the Bible have nothing in common with magic, sorcery, or witchcraft. They are not based on whim or fancy. They always have a logical purpose. They are never done to entertain or to flaunt power. Jesus is Lord. His acts are based on His perfect intelligence. His Lordship extends to everything. “For through him God created everything in heaven and earth, the seen and the unseen things, including spiritual powers, lords, rulers, and authorities. God created the whole universe through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16).
We have to approach the Bible with the understanding that when God’s truth is revealed in ordinary words, these words become richer in meaning. These common words are enriched in meaning because the Spirit of God is using them to communicate spiritual truth.
For example, the New Testament word love has been given more than ordinary meaning in the light of the Cross. The love of God which caused Jesus to die for our sins is a far deeper kind of love than that which one ordinarily understands. Therefore, it is important to your Bible study that you allow the Holy Spirit to enlighten every word.
Foundational Guides to Understanding
Literal Meaning of Language
The Bible Follows Normal Rules of Language
The literal meaning of language is the natural or normal way it is used. It follows the ordinary sense of the words. In Scripture, this means that the words have ordinary meanings. The Bible is not written in a secret code. You learned in the previous section that the Holy Spirit gives language enriched meaning, but this does not mean that the basic meaning of the words have been altered. When in Mark 8:27 we are told that Jesus and His disciples went away to the villages near Caesarea Philippi, we know that there were villages in that area and that they did visit them. This is the literal meaning of Scripture. It means what it plainly says.
Language can also be used in a figurative way. Figurative means the expression of one thing in terms of another. It presents pictures to the mind that illustrate other ideas. This is a perfectly proper use of language and is illustrated in John 7:38. In this verse Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me, streams of life-giving water will pour out from his heart.” Figurative language is used to explain a thing by picturing something to which it can be compared. Jesus pictures a person with streams of water pouring from his heart. A reasonable person can see that this is using language in a somewhat different way than usual. John adds a note of explanation, so there will be no doubt about the meaning. “Jesus said this about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were going to receive” (John 7:39). Literal and figurative language will be discussed more fully in Lessons 3 and 4. But in general, the Bible can be taken at face value to mean what it says in the normal way that language is usually understood. God revealed it to man to be a source of information to him, not to conceal truth from him.
Human Language Has Limitations
Every coin has two sides. On one side, the Bible is understandable to ordinary people because it is written in ordinary language. But on the other side, how can an infinite (limitless) God explain infinite truth to finite (limited) man? Since man is finite, his language is finite also. We say that God has accommodated Himself to man. That is, He has put spiritual truth in as simple a form as possible so we can understand some of it. You cannot understand everything there is to understand about God. But, you can understand the things that are important for you to know.
Romans 1:20 reveals that God created nature with the intent that it would help man understand what God is like! And to help overcome the limitation of language and human understanding, the Bible uses figurative language to illustrate truth.
It is hard for us to understand what God is like! The Bible says that God is Spirit (John 4:24). Yet God has unlimited power to see, to act, to hear. Some translations of the Bible use the word eyes when they really mean God’s power to see everything. They use the words right arm when they mean God’s power to act. These expressions are intended to help our understanding, not to mislead us into thinking that God is physically limited as we are. The Holy Spirit knows our limitation. He has used language in ways that will help the human mind grasp His truth.
God not only accommodated Himself to the language of man, but to his sinful condition. The story of the Bible opens with Adam and Eve in the presence of God in the Garden of Eden. Their sin resulted in banishment from God’s presence.
That separation from God was, and is, very deep and farreaching. Man was sealed in a prison of his five senses. Nothing seemed real to him unless he could see it, touch it, taste it, feel it, or hear it. Sin had cut him off from God. The infinite love and patience of the Holy Spirit worked slowly back into the consciousness of men. The Israelites had to be chosen as a living object lesson. The law had to be given. God’s plan had to be worked out over long years of history. He had to find special men like Abraham and Moses who were sensitive to His voice. He sent prophets to preach His words. Finally, “when the time had fully come” (Galatians 4:4, RSV) God sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. By His death on the cross, Jesus made a bridge for man to come to God once again.
Through all of this, God was giving man more and more information about Himself. This had to be progressive information for two reasons: (1) the human mind could only take in so much truth at a time, and (2) sin had made man morally unable to contact God. Isaiah understood this when he said teaching had to be given, “line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:10, RSV). Because of progressive revelation the Redeemer God is seen more clearly in the New Testament than in the Old Testament.
Scripture Interprets Scripture
One Bible teacher has said, “Scripture is its own best commentary.” He meant that when a passage of Scripture seems difficult, you should try to find other Scripture that sheds light on it. The first place to look is in its immediate context. You found in the glossary that context means “all the words around a passage.” Needless to say, this is where familiarity with the whole Bible comes in. We have stressed study in this lesson, because it is that serious application of concentration that is needed for digging into the Word. The more familiar you become with all Scripture, the easier it will be to find verses and passages that shed light on other passages.
Study is like a pebble dropped into still water. There are ever-widening circles that ripple from it: single words must be interpreted in the light of the sentence, the sentence in the light of the verse, the verse in the light of the section of the chapter to which it belongs, and so on. At the widest point, the whole Bible sheds light on its parts. The total body of Scripture is the total context and guide for understanding any specific portion of it. No strong doctrines can be based on single verses for which no other support can be found. This is not to say they are false, but simply that not enough information is available.
Here is a word of caution. It has been said that any theory or doctrine can be proved from Scripture. People have tried to “prove” false notions by looking through the Bible until they found a verse that sounded like what they were thinking.
For example, a woman once told me that the Bible teaches reincarnation. Since I knew that the Bible does not teach such a thing, I asked her where she had found this. She replied by quoting some verses (and misquoting others) which had to do with life after death. She was bringing her own wrong meaning to these Scriptures instead of examining them to see exactly what they said. Careful reading and comparing of Scripture with Scripture would have made clear that Jesus has saved us as individuals (He knows all of His sheep by name). We will inherit eternal life with Him after death. This bears no resemblance to the false doctrine of reincarnation.
Basic Harmony of the Whole
Harmony of All Bible Books
You can use context to help you understand the Bible. All the way from a single sentence to the whole collection of books, there is one single system of truth presented. In fact, you must use the whole system of truth to interpret any individual part of it. This is one of the convincing evidences of revelation. The writings of so many men, over such long stretches of history, are in harmony with each other. The key, of course, is that the Holy Spirit was the true author. Men were just the instruments.
Many themes can be traced throughout the Bible, but the main one is Redemption through Christ. The Old Testament pointed to Him in symbols and in prophecy. The New Testament is the record of His life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus said the Old Testament Scriptures taught about Him. After His resurrection, He taught two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “And Jesus explained to them what was said about himself in all the Scriptures, beginning with the books of Moses and the writings of all the prophets” (Luke 24:27).
Unity in Meaning
Unity in meaning reminds us that Scripture does not contradict itself. We must be careful not to bring our own meanings to Scripture when trying to find proof for them. The correct approach is to let the words speak for themselves. As you take a Scripture and examine it thoroughly, its true meaning will emerge. It may or may not be what you expected to find. God has inspired the authors. God does not contradict Himself. Therefore, the Bible will not contradict itself. If there are passages that seem to be opposed to each other, it is because of the student’s lack of understanding or lack of information. In such cases, always reserve judgment until further light can be shed on the problem.
Overview of This Course
We have titled this section of the lesson an overview because its subsections present main topics of study in this course.
Question and Answer Technique
As you have worked your way through this lesson, you have already used a little of the question-answer manner of studying the Bible. (See Exercises 1, 3, and 4.) A very good way to get correct meaning from a passage of Scripture is to “ask it questions.” The Scripture then speaks for itself as the answers emerge. The secret is in knowing how to ask the right kinds of questions. Question-answer technique is a basic tool in all Bible study.
Basic Principles of Interpretation
Lesson 1 has already given you an elementary understanding of interpretation of the Bible; Lesson 3 will deal with some of the basic principles or rules of interpretation in more detail. These basic principles have been discovered and used by serious, dedicated Bible scholars over centuries of study. Their concern has been to rightly divide or correctly teach the message of God’s truth. It is important to thoroughly understand the basic principles of interpretation so you will be able to apply them in all of the Bible study methods.
Bible Study Methods
There are many Bible study methods, but this course will deal with only four. The focus of the course is on the whole book method, also known as the synthetic method. Because this method is basic to all Bible study, it will be treated in detail. You will study the book of Habakkuk using the synthetic or whole book method in Lessons 5, 6, and 7.
The last three lessons will each center on a different method of study. Lesson 8 will teach the biographical method, using the Book of Amos. Lesson 9 will use the topical method in Ephesians. Lesson 10 will apply the devotional method to Philippians.
The study techniques and methods presented here should become your tools for a lifelong interest in studying the Scriptures.