Making studying the Scriptures easier
By Don Ruhl
Many people over the years have asked me for help in understanding the Bible. Recently, a woman on my e-mail devotional list (http://associate.com/groups/emaildevotionals/) wrote, “Can you give me some pointers for ‘studying’ the Bible? I read the Bible but I need help to study the Word! Help me if you can? Or recommend a book that will help me? Blessings…” How can a preacher resist a request like that!
I want to show you a no cost, anywhere, anytime, approach to Bible study. You do not have to buy books. The only thing I recommend you buy, but you probably already have is a writing instrument and paper, or buy a journal. This does not have to be done at your desk, or in front of your computer. Nor does it have to be done at specific times, but its simplicity enables you to do these things at anytime, private or public. You do not have to be in a Bible class, but you can do this anywhere.
I am not against buying books or using a computer or any of those other things, but often the simplest approach to a daunting task is the best one. Think of it this way. What “helps” did the Roman Christians have when they received Paul’s letter? No one had written a commentary yet! Why can we not approach the Book of Romans or other biblical books the way the first readers did? Granted, later biblical books and history helped later generations to understand various things. For example, the Book of Daniel could be better understood by events that unfolded after the writing and by the New Testament. Are there hard things to understand in Scripture? Peter affirmed that some things are hard to understand, “Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2Pe 3.14–16).
However, do not forget what the Lord told Habakkuk,
“Then the LORD answered me and said:
‘Write the vision
And make it plain on tablets,
That he may run who reads it.'”
Some things in life cannot be rushed. Can you make your garden grow faster? No, you have to work with it and in time it yields a good harvest. Studying the Scripture is like growing a garden. Sometimes we want to be able to read Scripture today and know it all by tomorrow. Take time daily to meditate in the Scriptures.
“Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful;
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper.”
David compared time spent in the word to the growing of a fruit tree. You do not put an apple seed into the soil today and tomorrow start harvesting apples. Gardening or farming is a long term investment. Even as get-rich-quick schemes do not work, but only hard daily labor, so, studying the Bible is a long term investment. There are no short cuts. You have to take the long slow way to your destination. Reading and meditating in the Scriptures seems like a slow process. The fruit from doing these things may not show up for years, leading the student to believe his current approach does not work. Just take your time and in time you shall see fruit.
You will understand God’s word and become proficient in it. Do not compare yourself to others, expecting to know what they know without putting in the time. Young adult children who expect to have everything Dad and Mom have will only make themselves frustrated. Dad and Mom have what they have, because they put in the time. It’s okay. You will arrive. Paul did not give us an impossible command when he wrote, “Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph 5.17).
Therefore, relax, you can understand the will of the Lord, provided you have the right attitude as shown by these passages,
“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” (Acts 17.11).
“At that time Jesus answered and said, ‘I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight'” (Matt 11.25, 26).
“But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience…Therefore take heed how you hear. For whoever has, to him more will be given; and whoever does not have, even what he seems to have will be taken from him” (Luke 8.15, 18).
“Pilate therefore said to Him, ‘Are You a king then?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice'” (John 18.37).
Therefore, proper spiritual attitude carries more weight for understanding the word of God than intellectual ability. Intellectual ability is necessary, but it is not the most important thing. God looks at your attitude and He designed His word for those who have the right attitude.
See the Text
Word pictures fill the Scriptures. Learn to see those pictures without first trying to figure out the meaning. See and experience the image. Then relate that to the point the speaker or writer made. For example, what does Psalm 23 teach? God takes care of us. However, David did not say it that way. How did David say it? He used the shepherd and sheep imagery. Do not look to the meaning or application first, otherwise, God would have given you the meaning first, but He wants you to look at the imagery. Learn about it. Read up on it or go learn from an experience related to that imagery. When you take the time to study the shepherd imagery in Psalm 23, you will be amazed later because you will have discovered the meaning of Psalm 23. You will have learned and understood the passage without realizing that you had gained that understanding.
Keep It Simple
The people who first heard or read biblical material did not have commentaries, and all the other helps we think we need to be able to understand the Bible. Therefore, come to the text as a person of that time. Do not make it complicated. We have the tendency to believe that the biblical message is hidden. Or we tend to believe we cannot dig out all that the passage holds until we consult tons of other sources. Someone persuaded us that we cannot understand the Bible until we know the original languages or consult someone who does. The original languages provide valuable insight, but you do not have to know them to know God’s word. Therefore, do not complicate the word of God and do not complicate the process for knowing the word of God. Never forget this: God wants you to understand His word. He does not require you to be a scholar. He loves you and gave you His word that you might learn of Him and from Him. Therefore, He has not delivered a complicated jigsaw puzzle. Do not look at the Scriptures as a riddle that only the experts can figure out. We tend toward the Naaman attitude.
Second Kings 5 shows a Syrian commander with expectations on how he thought a prophet of God should work. The general looked for the complicated and complex, but the prophet gave a simple command for removing the commander’s leprosy. “Then Naaman went with his horses and chariot, and he stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you, and you shall be clean.’ But Naaman became furious, and went away and said, “Indeed, I said to myself, ‘He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy.’ Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?’ So he turned and went away in a rage. And his servants came near and spoke to him, and said, ‘My father, if the prophet had told you to do something great, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, “Wash, and be clean”?’ So he went down and dipped seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean (2Ki 5.9–14).”
How much did Naaman need to know to cleanse his leprosy? How many commentaries and other helps did he need to read to find healing? He tried to complicate the matter and if he had consulted endless books, others would have complicated it for him. Yes, the writings of others can and do offer valuable insight, but do not downplay approaching Scripture with a childlike spirit. I do not want to make anyone feel ignorant for consulting a reference book, but I do not want to make anyone feel ignorant for not consulting a reference book. I have over 2400 books, so I know their value.
Keep Your Eyes on the Text
I mean that literally. Often we read a text and then look away. There is a time for that, but be sure you truly know what the writer said. I often ask people questions based on the text and they look up as if they are trying to figure out my question or figure out the meaning of the text, but since they are not literally looking at the text, they cannot figure out the answer. Look at the Scripture. Seeing the words in black and white might surprise you with the plainness of God’s word. You might also be surprised by the number of times you or another person claims that a passage teaches something, and then you take a closer look at the plain words of the text again, and you discover that it did not say what you thought it said. It is not unusual for me to ask what a passage says. The class or person will not look at the text, but will start making statements about other passages or statements about the general teaching of Scripture. I will ask the question several times before someone looks at the text and repeats what it says. The other statements might be true, but we need to know what that exact text says. In Luke 10, a lawyer asked Jesus about inheriting eternal life. Jesus responded with two simple questions, “He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?’” (Luke 10.26).
What do you think of the questions of Jesus? They were not complicated. What did they require the lawyer to do? He just needed to know what the Law said from his reading of it. Did it take a lawyer to understand the questions of Jesus? Did it take a lawyer to provide the answers? The lawyer did the right thing and quoted Scripture, “So he answered and said, ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10.27).
The lawyer offered no interpretation. He made no commentary. How did Jesus respond to that? “And He said to him, ‘You have answered rightly; do this and you will live’” (Luke 10.28).
The lawyer looked at the Scripture and told Jesus what it said, and Jesus indicated that was all that was needed. Yet, the lawyer fell into the human trap of wanting to say more, “But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10.29).
The lawyer should have been content with the plain teaching of Scripture. Look at the text, believe what it says, do what it says. No, he wanted more clarification and that is where he got into trouble and where we often get into trouble.
Consider the Context
In the church, we have been trained to believe that the answers to figuring out a biblical text are found in other texts. Watch what we do when we come to something we do not understand. The first thing we do is look at another passage, probably a parallel one. That can be helpful, but use that as a secondary approach. Most of the time, the key to understanding a difficult passage or to learning what the Lord wants you to do appears right there in the context. When a text was first delivered to the people, the writer or speaker expected them to be able to get the message without having to pull out a concordance to search for similar words and expressions throughout the word of God. Almost always you can understand the Bible by learning the context, even going over it again and again until you know what it says, and that will often help you with getting the message.
The context often has three parts. (This will be obvious to you once I show it to you.) There is the immediate context. That includes the words, sentences, and paragraph or paragraphs that immediately surround what you are studying. Go here first. The part you are studying was not written in isolation.
There is the wider context of that Bible Book. Are you studying something in the Book of Romans? Why immediately turn to the Book of Galatians? The Book of Romans was written as a single argument. After considering the immediate context, figure out the point of the Book of Romans.
There is the greater context of the Bible. How does the passage fit into the general message of the Bible? How does the Bible Book in which we find the passage fit into the Bible? You cannot make a passage contradict the rest of the Bible. Therefore, be sure your conclusion fits the rest of Scripture.
By knowing the context, you learn what the Holy Spirit says. You learn His intent. Always isolating verses eventually leads to failing to see the truth. When you learn the context you will change your opinions and you will learn that the conclusions and uses that people make of Bible passages often do not fit the context. Be bold and know what the Holy Spirit says the Bible says.
A Little at a Time
A man came into my office, because he was frustrated with his Bible reading. He could not remember the whole text or did not know what to do with all that he read in one sitting. I am the same way. I like to read through the Bible in a year, but that means I will not get everything I read in a day. So, I started looking for one verse to remember for the day. What happened was that as I read, a verse stood out and I kept thinking about it as I continued reading. So, I knew what verse to think about and what verse to write about. Wow, that really affected me and I wanted to share what I read with others. That is how my e-mail devotionals got started. (I have now written over 6,500.)
Therefore, acquiring a little knowledge at a time, helps you construct your spiritual house of knowledge. When a carpenter builds a house, does he take all the pieces at one time and build it? No, he takes one piece of wood and one tool and begins the construction, until some time later he has built a house. In Isaiah 28, listen to the criticism the people made of Isaiah’s preaching,
“Whom will he teach knowledge?
And whom will he make to understand the message?
Those just weaned from milk?
Those just drawn from the breasts?
For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept,
Line upon line, line upon line,
Here a little, there a little.”
(Isa 28.9, 10)
Listen to their ridicule in verse 9. They said, “Who does Isaiah think he is teaching? Babies?” Verse 10 reveals what it was about his teaching that they did not like. Did he teach them everything all at once? No, it was this precept, then that precept. He would give a line, and later another line. He spoke a little here, and a little there. They felt insulted, yet, is that not how we learn? Who learns a language in one day? Likewise, who learns the Bible in one lesson?
When I started preaching at the age of 22, the first day of the young adult Bible class that I was to teach, I presented to the class several options of topics and Bible books, and I stated how long it might take to teach each topic. Most of them were many weeks or months. A man objected, saying that you could teach the entire Bible in one hour. He became hostile and stood up in front of the class and tried to take over. An elder’s daughter ran out of class and got her dad. That was my first day of teaching an adult class! Was the man right? No, you cannot even read the Bible in one hour!
God knows our nature that we can handle only so much at a time. Therefore, that is why He had Isaiah teach the way that he did. And that was how the Lord wanted the prophet to continue,
“For with stammering lips and another tongue
He will speak to this people,
To whom He said, ‘This is the rest with which
You may cause the weary to rest,’
And, ‘This is the refreshing’;
Yet they would not hear.
But the word of the LORD was to them,
‘Precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
Line upon line, line upon line,
Here a little, there a little,’
That they might go and fall backward, and be broken
And snared and caught.
Therefore, I encouraged the man who came to my office, who was frustrated with his daily Bible reading, to pick one verse or teaching that appeared in his daily reading and concentrate on that for the day.
Ask Yourself Questions
Write down the questions. Ask yourself what key words appear. Do the following words appear in the context?
- Also (and other key words)
Look for other words that stand out or the writer repeats.
Almost all of my sermons and classes or Bible discussions that I get into with people, begin with a reading of the text and then I start asking why the writer or speaker said what he did. That is how I construct my lessons. Some men in the church believe they cannot teach or preach, but if they would do this simple task, nothing could hold them back. I write the question down. Then I answer it with the text. If I am making it sound easy, that is because it is, relatively speaking. I say, “relatively,” because I know some of this comes from experience and I know that there are difficult passages that require more. Therefore, get out your paper or turn on your computer and start writing down your questions and write down what the passage says and see how it answers your questions. Then watch your ability to study the Scriptures increase.