the Spirit Watch
How To Study And Understand The Bible For Yourself :
Part 1 -Why The Bible Should Be Studied
by Rev. Rafael Martinez, Co-Director, Spiritwatch Ministries
According to Christian tradition, the Holy Scriptures of the Bible are the foundational revelation of Godís dealings with man for thousands of years. As a Christian minister, I am convinced that they are as relevant to todayís spiritual needs as they were for people who lived decades, even centuries ago in the past. My calling to the Christian ministry enjoins me to rely entirely upon them to provide the spiritual insight and counsel I am charged to provide to the people I strive to serve in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God who is the final revelation of Godís self-disclosure to humanity. My conviction is not a dogmatic, blindly enshrined bias, either: my personal life of study and research of not only Scripture itself, but how it came to exist today is based upon objective study based upon sound research that no amount of postmodern skepticism or atheistic antagonism can shake.
I am also convinced that while I, as a Christian leader, am charged to expound the Scriptures in a way all can understand, the members of the Church of Jesus are also charged to, like the Bereans of old, to "(examine) the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true."(Acts 17:11, NIV). My claims and my teachings must be checked by the ultimate standard of the Word of God itself, and it is the Churchís responsibility as well as right to do so, entering into itsí own encounter with the divine truth within the pages of the Bible that we may all be fully established by sound doctrine from which sound practice comes forth.
We are all aware, however, of just how seriously many professing Christian circles have differed over the Bible itself, and I am also aware of the diversity of thought about the role the Scriptures should take in the practice of Christian faith that exists in Christendom everywhere. None of us are ignorant of the centuries of controversy and schism that have shaken Western civilization due to the profound disagreements between factions of Christian theologians, ministers and scholars and the nations they influenced. From the first ancient heresies confronting the infant Church of the first century to todayís twenty-first century divisions over homosexuality in church leadership, it has been made quite clear that how the people involved arrived at the conclusions they made about the Bibleís morals, ethics and philosophy and how it would guide their decision making is a process that still profoundly affects our nation and world today.
At the very core of this is the way in which the Scriptures have been interpreted, the manner in which they were examined and principles gleaned from them for application. This process is called hermeneutics, a word derived from the New Testament Greek word hermeneuo, which literally means to "explain, interpret, and translate." It is, as one writer has stated, "the clarifying of that which cannot be easily understood by the common reader .. the process of rendering in intelligible terms what you understand but others may not." Hermeneutics have played pivotal roles in world history insofar as how interpretations of Christianity have contributed to the acts of those nations claiming to have been Christian since the times of the Apostles. Therefore, if we recognize this plain truth and consider the implications it has for us today, we can see that how we understand and interpret Christianity in the light of our own personal system of hermeneutics directly affects how we approach every aspect of our lives today. This is a truth hidden in plain sight for most of us, however, and hermeneutics is an issue rarely dealt with at all in most Christian churches Ė to our profound loss.
Oneís hermeneutic, or interpretation of Scripture, directly determines their spiritual destiny and direction. We are using hermeneutics in one way or another, whether or not we are seminarians who can grapple with the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible for interpretation or people who just believe what they are told by their preacher. So in any study striving to help those seeking to understand the meaning of Scripture for themselves, we must carefully consider first how one should approach the Scripture before dealing with the great question of interpreting and applying it.
In so doing, we must first establish 3 foundational presuppositions that will carefully guide us.
Presupposition #1 : What The Bible Is And The Nature Of Its Contents
The Bible is God's inspired and authoritative Word as delivered, documented and preserved by ancient scribes who passed down the utterances of Bible-time apostles, prophets, poets, and leaders of ancient Israel and the early church who lived their human lives in this fallen world. It records ancient historical, cultural and geographical detail that provides a verifiable context for its claims, and is essentially collection of 66 books preserving these orally delivered "words of prophecy" over a period of over 1000 years. It shows how Godís purposes for humanity, first addressed through His choosing of the people of Israel became widened to all mankind through His sending of His Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem mankind from its sinful rebellion by His death, burial and resurrection and how the system of sacrifice and keeping of the law of Moses became fulfilled in His sacrifice, opening the door to complete fellowship with God by faith alone.
While an accurate record of God's revelation of His purposes and dealing with man, it is written in human language for human audiences and uses all the devices of human literary form to deliver divine truth (historical and personal narrative, allegory, personification, symbolism, prophecy). Even the most casual reading of the Old and New Testaments shows this. We read stories of Godís acts of creation, the personal struggles of less than perfect Bible patriarchs, songs of both joy and sorrow, many detailed accounts of how nations rose and fall, descriptions of the lands and flora of the Ancient Near East and so forth. The imagery and rhetoric is clearly penned in terms we can understand. The settings, though ancient, involve human beings called to submit to the Lordship of the One True God and how he responded to their obedience and backslidings. Through the perspectives of various participants, we see a deeply human side of the figures of the Bible, and while they wrote in various ways to describe what they saw or experienced, we can understand what is going on.
Presupposition # 2 : The Goals Of Study Of The Bible Ė Spiritual Birth And Growth
Why must we as Christians turn to the Bible for instruction? Jesus Himself commanded that it be done in Matthew 4:4: "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" (NIV). It is the words of God alone, delivered by his human oracles (2 Peter 1:20) that bring shape and form to the very power of God we must encounter that not only saves and renews the sin-sickened soul but purifies and enables our spiritual growth (John 6:63) to rise above it. The Word of God is a living power that is manifested in our lives by His Spirit as we first trust, then rely upon its magnificent ability to shape our lives (Hebrews 4:12 and John 6:63). For all the good Christian counsel by godly men and women may give, for all of the kinds of religious duty, sacrifice, or personal effort we can expend can to that end, nothing can ever match the power of Godís Word to enable the Christian to grow from babe to mature believer.
The process begins as we approach Scripture daily to seek Christian nurture through sound doctrine that equips, purifies and perfects those who ardently pursue it (2 Timothy 3:16). As we approach, interpret and apply Godís Word to our lives, the fruit of Godly love that changes us then enables us to appreciate right relationships (1 Timothy 1:5) with God first and those around us and to seek opportunities of Christian service (Ephesians 4:12/Jude 22-23) that glorifies Him and serves other people. As we minister out of that abundance of spiritual light which God is shining into our lives, we are then rooting ourselves in true Christian morality (Hebrews 5:14) that becomes more and more discerning, conscientious and ever zealous for Godís glory in our lives and in that of others. Having resolved ourselves to seek this in the face of temptation and trial, such intentionally focused pursuit will result in our perfection in Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16).
Presupposition #3. How The Bibleís Content Is To Be Proclaimed & Understood
The ministry of Bible teaching that proclaims the truths of the Word of God is the paramount concern of the Church. Teaching is one of the highest priorities the Lord Jesus Christ placed upon the mission of the Church (Matthew 28:19-20). It was one of the primary features of the early church's activities (Acts 2:42, 4:18, 5:28, 42; Colossians 2:16; Romans 12:6-7; 2 Timothy 2:2) and is of no less importance then as today. All truly God-ordained preaching and teaching that is submitted to the priority Jesus placed on it will not fail to expound Godís Word in a way that both edifies and convicts, if necessary, those who hear it. It is through teaching that the Faith itself is passed on in a process the Bible makes clear must be perpetuated continually.
Because of the underlying spiritual nature and focus of the content of the Bible on Godís dealing with humanity through the nation of Israel, understanding the teachings of Scripture depends upon the personal illumination of the student by the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit, the One who is the author of it. While human teachers can expound in a variety of ways the content of Scriptural teaching, and the ministry of Biblical teaching is a foundational one in the life of the Christian Church, human gifts can at best only be vessels used by the transformational power of the Holy Ghost to bring light into the student of Scripture. Jesus sent the Holy Ghost to initiate a ministry of teaching that would transform lives (John 14:16, 26, 15:26, 16:13; 1 John 2:27). Absolute and utter reliance on His inner work within the lives of believers to perfect them and bring them into "the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13) is a necessary presupposition to bear in mind.
How To Study The Bible For All Itís Worth
Godís self-revelation in the pages of the Bible is that of the Almighty as a personal Being who speaks to human audiences seeking interaction and connection with them. This aspect of His personality sets the tone for Scripture itself: we are intended to approach and understand God through understanding His Word, which is meant to be profoundly personal. So an encounter with Godís Word that is life-changing involves a daily and meaningful interaction with the text of the Bible itself that is prayerful, intentional and reflective.
True Bible study of the Scriptures is more than just simply reading them or being audience to a reading of them in a public setting. We are meant to know God by drawing upon His Word in a deliberate approach of daily personal study that is an act of faith as much as an act of worship. The goals of spiritual growth weíve spoken of simply are beyond our reach if we seek them any other way Ė any other avenue will not accomplish it. We must seek God personally by drawing near to Him through His Word.
So how do we study the Bible to make room for its transforming power in our lives?
Letís consider what Scripture itself says about the subject.
As weíve said, the study of Godís Word is more than just hearing it Ė there must be understanding as well as commitment to practice what it commands. In the earliest days of the humble beginnings of the nation of Israel, Yahwehís witness was that Abraham, the nationís patriarch, was one who not only "obeyed my voice," but "kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws" (Genesis 26:5). Abrahamís interactions with Yahweh were personal and the agreement He made to bless him was orally delivered directly to him. The records of this and the other deeds of subsequent generations then became oral traditions that preserved Godís commandments, which He charged them to keep (Exodus 15:26) and when the Law of God was delivered to Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai, the nation of Israel itself were charged to keep it by Yahweh Himself, as a covenant they had to keep to receive His blessing (Exodus 19:5-8 Ė "all that the Lord hath spoken we will do").
When the Law was finally delivered orally to Moses and then recorded in writing to preserve it, Yahwehís charge to Mosesí successor Joshua was that the written record (Joshua 1:8 Ė "this book of the law") then was to become a source of study that was not to merely be orally spoken of but was to be meditated and dwelt upon "day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein." The power of this wasnít lost upon King Josiah centuries later when, after hearing the Law read to him during the final days of Israelís national apostasy, he was so convicted by it that he rent his clothing and sought mercy from God for the nationís generational depravity (2 Chronicles 34:15-21).
This practice of close, personal study of Godís Word that intentionally mulls over and closely considers Biblical truth is, then, what makes the difference between the passive hearing of truth and the intentional incorporation of it into oneís life. The Hebrew for "meditation" siyach in this context means literally to muse, study, or ponder and these are actions that clearly involve time and commitment to personal investigation: the word is used no less than 5 times in Psalms 119, a Psalm that captures the most vibrant passion for searching out Godís presence and direction by dwelling upon His Word. In Psalm 63:6, we hear of the writer both meditating and remembering God personally, and in Psalm 77:12, meditation upon Godís ways leads another psalmist to actually speak aloud of His goodness to others. Meditation upon the Word of God that leads to personal spiritual rebirth and growth is certainly what Jesus was referring to in his parable of the sower in Matthew 13:18-23. Here, seed is a symbolic reference to the message of the Gospel and the four kinds of ground it is sown upon are symbolic of four attitudes to it that bring radically different results. The "good ground" that brings forth "fruit", or spiritual growth, is that Jesus identifies as those who hear and understand the "seed" of Godís Word. This kind of growth is what raises spiritual babes into true disciples (Acts 10:30-48); when a seeker is determined to know Godís truth and intentionally seeks it out, Godís riches and grace always respond.(Matthew 7:7-11).
Meditative study of Godís word takes time, energy and a sanctified determination to persevere in seeking Him, despite how one oneís fleshly side would demand shortcuts or to avoid the enterprise altogether. It is not an easy task and requires a personal discipline and commitment. But the mature Christian believer knows well of what I speak, and after 20 years of encountering God in just this way, I can personally testify that for all the growth Iíve experienced I too am still a learner, a disciple of Jesus Christ who still can fail and disappoint Him Ė I am far from satisfied with where I am spiritually.
The redemptive side of this is that I am aware of my need for more of God and that His grace that continually reminds and convicts me to draw near to Him is truly a heaven-sent mercy of His that confirms His continual and loving care for me. We should all take heart in that we serve a God of grace that meets us wherever we are and whose kindness always draws us to Him (Romans 2:4).
So how do we go about actually studying the Scriptures? What do we do once we've cracked the cover of that blessed Book of books and are determined to hear God through it? Our next articles will discuss this thoroughly, with the help of the insights drawn from Jim Wilhoit and Leland Ryken's excellent book "Effective Bible Teaching" (Baker 1988), my years of training at Lee College and ministry in various churches and my own personal Bible study and practice that I trust will be of great help to you.
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