How to Study the Scriptures
Updated: Oct 29, 2021
How important is Bible study? If one were to do a survey to find out how many Christians study the Bible on a regular basis, you may find that the majority of them either do not study the Bible at all or have an erroneous concept of what Bible study is. In the United States, eighty percent of Protestants do not study God’s Word regularly, regardless of their belief that studying the Scriptures is important (Weber, 2012). Another survey shows that seventy percent of pastors say the only time they study the Bible is just before a sermon (Murphy, 2002). It also appears that many pastors do not believe that a deep study of doctrine, or that an understanding of the mysteries of the Scriptures is important, since all mysteries will be revealed at the second coming of Yeshua haMashiach (Jesus Christ, the Messiah). This belief can especially be seen in many Deliverance and Revival church groups that believe that the Holy Spirit teaches us directly what we need to know from God and whose emphasis is on demonology and not a study of doctrine (Breshears, 1990). Unfortunately, many of these groups hold erroneous doctrines because there is no attempt to validate what they believe or to explain why they believe what they do.
Are they right though? Is the study of the Scriptures important or even necessary for salvation? I believe that not all of us will be inclined or even have the competence to study God’s word in depth. However, doing so is immensely important for a deep and fulfilling relationship with God, especially in this age of deception. His Word declares that we should “study to show ourselves approved to God…rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, paraphrased). In addition it says that “my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you from being priest of me; because you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (Hosea 4:6, NKJV). We should study and judge the Scriptures, to validate them – ‘rightly dividing them’, to separate truth from error. Whether we study the Scriptures individually or in a group, the study of God’s Holy Word is important in Christian living; and when we do study, we should do so under the influence of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26), which writes God’s Law on our hearts (Romans 2:15), and we should also study the Scriptures in context.
Challenges When Studying the Scriptures
Language is a living organism; it changes and develops as time passes and as cultures interact with each other. Whenever we use language, we use it to convey meaning. We do not simply use words to say what we want to say, but we use the words that we do to convey the most accurate meaning possible, so that others understand what we say the way we intend. This is called diction. To use proper diction, is to use a word with the most accurate meaning to convey precisely a specific point or emotion. However, the problem with diction is that words do change their meaning overtime; and one way of saying something today, would not be the same way we would have said it a hundred years ago.
The Scriptures were completed and compiled over two millennia ago. The latest book added, The Revelation of John, is believed to have been written as early as 68 CE (Ecclesia). That is at least over 1,900 years ago! Not to mention, the oldest book, believed to be Job, that had been written during the time of the patriarchs, was completed about 430 plus years before Genesis (The Scroll Eaters, 2011). A lot has changed since then. The culture, customs, general knowledge and innuendos then were very different from today, and that is excluding the language barrier, which by the way, is a big one regardless of the most accurate and skilled translations. Being a speaker myself of four languages, I have come to appreciate the subtle and tremendous variance of words. Words even in context may have a slightly or extremely altered meaning that cannot be accurately translated, because there is not an equivalent word in the target language. For example, the word “mal” in German has no equivalent in English. However, if we use it with certain words and in certain contexts it may make a request more polite, vague, or even sarcastic (Emanuel Schuchart).
In the English language, certain words over the centuries have changed their meaning so much that their original meaning has been abandoned. Here are a few contained in the Oxford Dictionary. Take the word “broadcast”. The original meaning of the word was “to sow seeds with a sweeping movement of the hand or a ‘broad cast’”. Today it means a piece of information promulgated by the media. Then the word “decimate”, today it means, “to totally destroy”. However, the original definition was “to kill one in ten”. This was a brutal practice used by the Romans in 5 CE to inspire fear and loyalty in their ranks. Whenever someone in a squadron acted up, lots were drawn and one out of every ten soldiers would be killed. Other examples include “bully, “awful”, “cute”, “bimbo”, “gay”, and “nervous” which originally had only positive meanings, now they have for the most part very negative connotations; while other words like “nice” and “fantastic” originally had negative denotations are now only used in a positive sense (Rooney, 2013).
The meanings of words do change over time and will continue to change as language and customs evolve. Even punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence. For example, the sentence “Let’s eat, Grandma” without the comma would take on a very different, and even a disturbing, meaning: “Let’s eat Grandma!” The examples do not stop there. In the Caribbean, the sentence, “he’s selling the children” is understood as “he’s selling to the children” in another culture speaking the same language, however, it has a more disturbing connotation.
In Ancient Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament), the differences are even more spectacular. Eastern thought (Ancient Hebrew) varies very much from Western thought (Greek, Western culture). Both of these cultures view their world, lives and purpose in ways that would seem foreign to each other. This is because in Greek thought we view the world through the mind (abstract thought) and describe objects in relation to their appearance. However, in Ancient Hebrew thought we view the world through the senses (concrete thought) and describe an object in terms of its function (Benner, 2004). So when the Scriptures say that “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, and whose leaf does not wither” (Psalms 1:3 - literal translation: "And he will be like a tree transplanted upon tributaries of water, which gives his fruit in his season and his leaf will not fade and all which he will do will succeed."), the author is giving his reader a visual picture of how applying the Scriptures affect our day-to-day lives.
This is why when we read the Scriptures in Hebrew they come alive in our minds in 3D. We are able to visualise each verse through our senses and this makes its teachings even clearer. We can hear the stream of waters flowing. We can see the tree and its green leaves. This is one example of a verse where the text could be translated in its concrete sense, however, for other verses we do not have this luxury. For example when the text says that, “...the Lord is slow to anger....” (Psalms 145:8). The word for anger in Hebrew is “awph” meaning “nose”. If the translators literally translated the text, it would read that, “the Lord is slow to nose”, which would be completely incomprehensible to the English reader. However, for the Ancient Hebrew reader they already understand that the word anger is a flaring of the nose, so it would be a visual picture for them.
In terms of how Eastern cultures describe objects, the Ancient Hebrews would describe an object in terms of its function. Thus, objects with similar functions could be identified with the same word. For example, the word, “ayil” meaning “a strong leader” is used to describe a deer stag (who is a strong leader among the animals) and an oak tree (which is a very strong tree), a strong leader among the trees of the forest. This is a bit challenging for western thinkers to understand because we describe things according to how they look and not by their function. This poses a problem not only when we are trying to interpret texts that compare two visually different things, like the oak and the stag, but also texts which teach that men were created in the image of Elohim. We are not His image because we look like him, but we are his image because we share his character, personality, authority and mind. We do not look like Him, but we are like Him in terms of attributes and function, that is creative, rulers, and gods ("elohim" means mighty ones above the animals).
I cannot go into more detail regarding the differences between humans and angels, even in our fallen state in this blog. However, some major differences that I will mention here is that while angels (fallen angels) can inspire us to create weapons and other technology, it is mankind that must create them. Also, angels should not rule over a domain, but it was our birthright to rule this earth. In addition, angels do not procreate (make other angels in their image) but we do.
Additionally, another difference between Western languages and Ancient Hebrew is that the latter is an active language. The concrete nature of Ancient Hebrew allows most, if not all, of its nouns to be active (functioning as verbs). For this reason, the words simply come off the page in colourful 3D when reading Ancient Hebrew texts including the Scriptures. We do not have this experience in the English language since most of our nouns are passive in nature. We think of our nouns in an abstract way and we usually cannot visualise them moving or having a function in relation to other words. For example, the words father and mother in English are individuals who are parents. These words in itself does not describe the function of a mother or father. In Ancient Hebrew the word father, “ab”, means “the one who gives strength to the family”. Mother, “em”, means “the one who binds the family together”. “Ab” can be visualised as the central beam of the tent (the literal meaning of the word) and the beam that bears the weight of the tent (the family). “Em” means “glue” (literally), a liquid that binds things together (in this context the family). Nouns in Ancient Hebrew are active and descriptive. By looking at a word, while understanding this concept, we can understand its function as well as knowing its appearance. This gives Ancient Hebrew an edge when explaining complicated concepts, such as, the nature of Elohim, of eternity and the Kingdom of Heaven. For this reason, I am an advocate of learning the Hebrew language. I believe that any serious student of the Scriptures should have a basic understanding of the Hebrew language as well as an understanding of Ancient Hebrew thought and how to apply this to their study. With this background, the Scriptures will literally come to life for you.
Now that we have examined the difficulty of our interpretations of the words themselves, other linguistic factors may also hinder a correct interpretation of the Scriptures. Style and tone may also change the meaning of a sentence depending on how it is used. The tone of the setting and tone of voice may change what is understood when certain words are used. We can see examples of this in our own language, particularly in situations where “it’s not what we say, but how we say it” that matters. In written language, tone is also important. We change our tone depending on our target audience, the type of material, and the target culture. Writing is an art form and writing style is developed based on how we use words to attract or affect our readers. No one can dispute that an informative piece of writing, such as a manual, is a more direct form of writing than a piece of poetry. When we look at the Scriptures, approximately seventy-five per cent of its content is historical poetry, a style of writing that does not exist today. Reading the Scriptures out of historical and the appropriate context is very easily done, even by experts in the field (Ancient Hebrew Research Center), because of the disparity and global nature of the Scriptures that spans not only decades but centuries, and even millennia. If we hold the belief that, the earth is only six thousand years old, the events of the Scriptures span approximately four thousand of those years. The tone of the Scriptures, and certainly its audience, has changed even during the creation of the Scriptures; and it was certainly not written with today’s audience in mind. Yeshua said, “Blessed are those who have not seen (me) and yet have believed” (John 20:29, KJV). There is a special reward for those who believe and do the will of God in this generation. Comprehending the ancient mysteries and teachings taken for granted by the Hebrews, while they were generally and more accurately understood, will be more difficult for us in this time. Therefore, when we read the Scriptures, we should read it with its historical and social context in mind.
Indeed, there is plenty of room for translation errors. For this reason the use of concordances to find references to other Biblical texts, as well as the influence of the Holy Spirit, is important, more now in our time, when studying the Scriptures. It is important to note however, that while I believe the use of a concordance is helpful when studying the Scriptures, I do not believe that one is sufficient or should be relied on completely. The Holy Spirit teaches (Luke 12:12, John 14:26), so let the Scriptures explain themselves. While there are different and even competing views on what the Holy Spirit do, it is clear that one of its purposes is to teach and convict believers. God uses His Spirit to speak to us directly and through His word. The Spirit reveals mysteries not revealed in the Word (Acts 7:55, 1 Peter 1:12, Acts 2:17-18) and explains what is already present in the Holy Scriptures. Therefore, studying in the Spirit is a more accurate and more trustworthy method of study than the use of a concordance created by men in theological seminaries. These men were often biased and were not necessarily under the influence of the Holy Spirit when they connected seemingly related texts together - one reason for the disparity of views on certain biblical teachings found in even the most accredited concordances. At the end of the day, there are many theological schools with varying views on certain texts. Hence, a concordance published by a seminary will reflect the teachings and opinions of that school of thought, which while agreed upon, are not necessarily true interpretations of the Scriptures. I am not saying not to use them, instead, compliment them with the influence of the Holy Spirit and the context of the time it was written to validate texts related to the themes being studied. A good concordance is indeed a good place to start, but it should not be an exclusive method of study.
Whenever we study, we should do so under the influence of the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:27, Ezekiel 36:26-27). It is important to understand that the Holy Spirit does not tell us what the Laws of the Creator are, we only come to know of His Laws from the Scriptures and through study, not by customs or by what we feel is right (Isaiah 8:9-10). “[For] the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14, NKJV). Surely, the Holy Spirit compels us to love God and people through our moral conscience. It is also true that whenever we hear the Law of God, it convicts us to follow it. The Holy Spirit teaches us the things of God (1 Corinthians 6:19) because you now have the mind of God within you (1 Corinthians 2:16). This is to prevent His people from “…laying aside the commandment of God, (and) hold to the tradition of Men” (Mark 7:8, NKJV). As Yeshua said to his disciples not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” have been a faithful servant, not everyone who says, “have (I) not prophesied in your Name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name” will enter the Kingdom of God. For God will declare to that erring servant that “I never knew you: depart from me, you who practice lawlessness!” (Matthew 7:21-23, NKJV).
The prevalent teaching that the Laws of God were nailed to the cross worries me for this reason. The Scriptures clearly state that only he who does the will of God will enter the kingdom; that is, he who does God’s will, not his own. We cannot presume to know or understand the things of God without His Laws to guide us. We cannot presume that it is okay to accept the customs passed down from our parents as right and just. In our generation, there is a spirit of lawlessness pervading the churches, teaching that it is okay to follow the commandments of God that pertains to how we treat each other, such as those referring to adultery, theft, coveting and bearing false witness. Then we nail all the commandments that pertain to the worship of God to the cross, such as the Sabbath and His Holy Festivals. How ironic that incest, adultery and covetousness were not also nailed to the cross. We are now in a time of great deception (Matthew 24: 21-25), and we need to revisit our beliefs and to weigh them up with the will of God. Only by studying the Scriptures with the guidance of the Holy Spirit can we truly know the things of God, and not be deceived into accepting the righteousness of men (Matthew 2:12, Galatians 1:8-9, 2 Corinthians 11:4, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3).
Bible study therefore is not a daily study of verses with a commentary attached. Leave that to morning and evening worship only, which helps to direct our thoughts to God and to motivate us to keep Him in our thoughts and practice throughout the day. While this is a valuable discipline, this cannot be the only time we do read the Word of our Maker. Bible study is important to bring us closer to God, by knowing His will, His commandments, and His mysteries. This is vital to a deep and committed relationship with Him, “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4, NKJV). Doctrinal purity is important, therefore we need to know and validate for ourselves what God’s righteousness is. Studying random verses will not do this. Instead, it involves a study of whole thoughts, themes, and ideas. Doctrine for example, cannot be based on a single Bible verse; it must be based on whole teachings that are often taken from several verses and from one or both sections of the Scriptures – the Old and New Testaments. “For precept (the law of God) must be upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 8:10, see also verse 13).
If we are to validate our doctrinal beliefs, we need to study deeply over time. Sometimes one study can take one day, several days, weeks or even years. At the end, we feel more uplifted, closer to God, His will for our lives becomes clearer, and our service to Him becomes more effective. We feel this way because God rewards us for communing and growing in His Word (Matthew 6:33). When we are aligned with God, we are happiest and most productive in our lives, and that is what He wants for His children – a touch of heaven here and now and a true and pure relationship with Him. “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him” (John 14:21, NKJV). With this, indeed, all other things such as joy, peace, patience, kindness, and long suffering with mankind, will be given to us. This is one of the promises of God, and He never goes back on His word. “…But if you return to Me, and keep My commandments and do them, though some of you were cast out to the furthest part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from there, and bring them to the place which I have chosen as a dwelling for My name” (Nehemiah 1:9, NKJV).
Do not take my word for it, find out for yourselves; and receive your share of God’s blessings. “Keep my commandments and live: and my law as the apple of thine eye” (Proverbs 7:2, KJV).
I hope that you have been blessed by this teaching, and I hope that you will investigate all that is written above and match it to what the Scriptures reveal and not according to our worldview. For “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, NKJV), but test these words by “…rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NKJV).
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