3 Rules of Studying the Bible
by Thomas Schaff
God’s mercy is greater than our weakness and it is always possible for Him to give us truth no matter how wrong our methods of Bible study might be. In fact, we must recognize that God is sovereign and dispenses His truth to whomever He wills. However, He has ordained rules for properly studying His Word and only to the extent that they shape and control our Bible study career can we expect to be faithful stewards of His Word, understanding and explaining the Bible accurately and clearly.
The First Rule is that we must personally search the scriptures.
The Second Rule is that the Bible explains itself.
The Third Rule is that we must think of and express what we learn from the Bible the same way God does.
Let us carefully examine these three rules before we begin to study the Bible.
The First Rule
The first rule is that we must personally search the scriptures. This rule is based upon the fact that we understand the Bible far deeper and with more clarity if we personally spend time meditating and wrestling with it than if we passively hear or read what someone else teaches. Also, personal investigation of the Bible results in an abiding confidence in and courageous commitment to what we learn, while an education supported by a second-hand knowledge of the Bible results in a shallow grasp of its contents and a loyalty based largely upon emotion rather than reason.
When another person tells us what they have learned, it may be polite to listen, but it is not right to accept it as fact without a good reason. We must be critical of anything that we have not checked ourselves personally. That is, we must embrace as true only those things which we have verified are so from a first-hand search of the Bible.
Acceptance of Bible interpretation without personal investigation is a problem that is common to all men, but it can be a stubborn problem among Christians because they are taught to be submissive to authority, obedient and humble. Additionally, Christians tend to be trusting of those leaders and teachers who appear to know something of the Bible.
However, Christians ought to have a chip on their shoulders when men offer them explanations about Bible passages. They have no obligation to, and in fact they must not, take what other men say about the Bible at face value, no matter how reasonable they may seem, no matter how faithful those men have been in the past. The explanations of men must be compared to those things that they know are true because they have personally learned them from the Bible.
It is true that God gives some men the gift to be teachers in order to lead others into truth. But that does not give someone the excuse to neglect personally examining those things he hears. For if a teacher has the ability to explain difficult verses because he has the gift of understanding, the listener must still have a personal understanding of enough rudimentary truths in the Bible so that he will know if the explanations that he hears ring true or not. In other words, God will give all true believers the ability to recognize truth and error in what they hear (John 10:4,5,27). But that ability is developed and strengthened through nurturing and cultivating a habit of personally studying God's Word, a requirement for all of God's people.
Biblical Support for the First Rule
The biblical support for this rule is found in Acts 17:11. Notice in Acts 17:11 that the people to whom Paul brought the Gospel were Jews. They were people who were taught from childhood to think a certain way about the Bible. There was a certain common Jewish view of things in the Bible, much of it based upon tradition and the ideas of men. If anyone would have unquestioningly accepted the consensus of opinion about Biblical things, it would have been them. Amazingly, however, the Jews in Thessalonica had developed a habit of listening critically and not accepting anything that they had not checked out personally. It wasn't that they were comparing the message of Paul to the Jewish view of the Bible. Rather they were looking at the Bible honestly, for what it says. They "searched the scriptures daily," with the result that "many of them believed." That is, they were given the grace to properly study the Bible, arrive at the correct conclusion, then receive and trust Paul's message for the truth that is was.
Illustrating the Rule: a Peril
Not understanding a part of the Bible is a problem, but that lack of understanding can be resolved by God's grace and proper Bible study methods. Unfortunately, there exists a problem that is far greater, it is so dangerous that it is better to call it a peril rather than a problem. What is that problem? It is that the some meanings of some verses are taught by so many men for so long, and consequently are so familiar, that people assume what is taught is true without bothering to personal verify if the things taught are so. I call that problem the peril of familiarity or the peril of assumption. Let me illustrate the problem by means of the following true story.
There once was a little girl who was learning the alphabet. She really enjoyed learning her letters. In fact she grew fond of some of the letters. As children often do, she had her favorite colors, her favorite toys and her favorite letters. One of her favorites was the letter that comes between k and p. She loved the letter LNMO. You know, a b c d e f g, h i j k lmno p. It was a great disappointment to her when someone told her the correct way to say the alphabet. In fact, she didn't believe it at first. She had said it many times for her mom and dad and was praised for her efforts. She never thought to ask about the correct way because she thought all the time that she was saying it correctly.
This little story show the peril of thinking we understand when all along we do not understand at all. Unfortunately this is this a danger that is very common in Bible study. As I said before, I call it a peril rather than a problem. Incorrectly understanding something is a problem. But, if that misunderstanding is not recognized, it is a great peril because it persists and does its evil work unimpeded. In fact, when people continue to think they understand a verse but really do not, they are unwitting accomplices and promoters of wrong understanding because they perpetuate wrong doctrines and wrong behavior. There is no greater barrier to people's right understanding than thinking they know when they do not, because when people think they correctly understand, they will not be willing to receive any further instruction or correction. Their misplaced confidence discourages further self-study in a passage. When people think they understand something correctly, but really do not, they destroy understanding. Only when they are given the grace to recognize their misunderstanding of a verse, will they see their view as a problem to resolve and make the effort to arrive at the correct understanding. It may be that the verse is too hard to figure out, at least at that time. But if a person is aware that his view is possibly incorrect, he is challenged to continue to search the scriptures, and he is protected from the peril of continuing to think and live a lie.
This peril is especially pernicious in the case of those Bible passages that are most familiar to Christians. There are passages which are so frequently used that everyone assumes the common views of those passages are correct.
Unfortunately, the common views many times are wrong. But people are comfortable and satisfied with the accepted understandings of many Bible passages so their wrong interpretations persist, unchallenged and uncorrected. Not only that, the mistaken interpretations poison their thinking about other Bible verses, as they try to reconcile their wrong ideas with what other verses are saying.
So in summary, we can either think we know because we have been taught about the Bible by somebody, or we can really know because we have learned about the Bible by our own personal search of the scriptures. The first rule is we must be taught of God rather than men.
Examples of the Application of this First Rule
First, we shall try to understand the phrase, "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God," found in Romans 3:23.
This verse is often illustrated with the picture of a man who shoots an arrow at a target and misses the mark. The implication of the illustration is that people try in their sinful way to do what God says, but just cannot do it and so come up short. This is a wrong way to think of Romans 3:23.
People do indeed lack the glory of God, as this verse states. But the verse would be more correctly illustrated with the picture of a man who deliberately turns around and faces the opposite way from the target. In fact, man in his perverseness breaks the bow and arrow, having no desire to even think of hitting the target. That is the message of Romans 3:10-18.
Romans 3:23 is not a comment on man's ineffective efforts to achieve the standard of God's glorious righteousness. Outside of Christ, man does not even want to obey God. It takes the grace of God to turn man around so that he faces God's righteousness and then seeks the glory of God.
Secondly, we shall try to understand the phrase, "Fathers provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged" found in Colossians 3:21.
This verse commonly is taught to mean "fathers do not make your children angry because your discipline gets out of hand. Do not punish your children so harshly that you break their spirits as well as their wills." However, that is not a correct way to think about this verse.
The word erethizo translated "provoke" is used only 2 times in the Bible. It is used here and in II Corinthians 9:2 to mean create a zeal by example. Furthermore, the words "to anger" are in italics in our English Bible to highlight the fact that they are not found in this verse at all, but are inserted by the translators, probably in reaction to the word "provoke." Therefore, we can more accurately understand this verse to say, "Fathers, do not, by your example, create a desire for sin in your children, for that will lead to their lack of interest in the things of the Lord. They will be discouraged from living obediently."
Deep in their hearts, children know the right way to act as God's creatures. They recognize the virtues that come from God in the behavior of their parents and recognize when their parents fail to live up to their responsibilities. Children respond to the authority God has delegated to parents. Children usually want to please their parents and, even if only in an outward way, readily follow the spiritual leadership of their parents. It is the job of parents to encourage their children to walk obediently to God and to discourage a life of sin.
Thirdly we shall try to understand the phrase, "for judgment must begin at the house of the Lord," found in I Peter 4:17.
I Peter 4:17 is totally misunderstood by most teachers. I Peter 4:17 is commonly understood to refer to God's judgment upon the church. However, a careful analysis of this verse results in a surprising conclusion. It is not a prediction that judgment will begin upon the corporate churches, as for example near the end of time. It is true from other scriptures that corporate churches are judged by God for their sin, but that is not the message of I Peter 4:17 at all. The message concerns the role and experience of individual true believers. This can be shown in two ways. One from the immediate context and another from a careful analysis of the words in the verse.
First of all, let us look at the context of verse 17, in particular, to whom the verse is addressed. The focus of verse 15 is upon a collection of people who are "partakers of Christ's suffering" (verse 13). People "partake of Christ's suffering" when Jesus suffered on their behalf in payment for their sins. Also, people "partake of Christ's suffering" when they suffer for bearing Christ's name in the world. In addition to that, verse 14 states they are people upon whom "the spirit of glory and God" rests. These verses show that true believers are in view.
The message of the context is, in the words of verse 15, "let none of you suffer as a murderer, or ..." That is, they must not suffer for the wrong reason. They must not suffer for actions that are similar to an unbeliever's. They must not live as an unbeliever. As a complement to that, according to verse 16, is that when they suffer for the right reason, God is glorified. Verse 17 continues the focus upon believers that is part of the preceding verses. Notice the connecting word "for" that begins verse 17. That is, the message of verses 14-16 continues into verse 17.
The judgment mentioned in verse 17 concerns "the house of God." As it turns out, the word "house" refers to those people who really are the house, that is true believers, as we read in Hebrews 3:6, "But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end." In support of that understanding of "the house," verse 17 goes on to state, "if it first begin at us," in which the word "us" includes Peter and other believers to whom he wrote. In fact, the verse ends with the words "them that obey not the gospel of God," as a contrast to the "us" who do obey the gospel. Therefore, the first idea to get straight is that I Peter 4:17 is directed to true believers, and not the corporate church that is a mixture of believers and unbelievers, or a totally apostate church, with few if any saved members.
Furthermore, the word "at" in the phrase "at the house of God" is really the word (apo) that means "away from." It always means "away from" without exception. The judgment is not directed toward (pros) the house, as if it were the target of the judgment. The judgment is not placed upon (epi) the house, as if the house must bear the judgment. The judgment issues away from the house into the world. Therefore the second idea to get straight is the I Peter 4:17 tells us judgment goes away from the house of God, away from true believers, because it is "the time" for that to happen. In addition to that, the phrase "if it first began at us" also uses the word "away from" (a different form of apo) for the word "at," with the proper meaning of, "but if first away from us."
Putting all of this together, we can come up with the following understanding of I Peter 4:17. The time is now, and has been for a while already, that judgment goes away from the believers out into the world. When does this happen? As this passage itself tells us in verse 11, "if any man speak, let him speak the oracles of God." In other words, it is because true believers bring a message of judgment, in faithful obedience to God, that the "fiery trial" comes to them (verse 12), inasmuch as the unbelievers hate that message and persecute anyone who brings it. Verse 17 continues to ask, "if that message first comes out of us to the world, what will happen to those people who do not obey the Gospel message that comes out of "us?" The answer, of course, is that they will be judged.
The Second Rule
The second rule is that the Bible explains itself. Despite all the modern aids, tools and well intended help of other people, we only can resolve our questions when we continue to search the Bible.
This rule is based upon the fact that God is the only one who understands Himself. He is the one to whom we must go for help in answering questions about His Word. How does God answer us when we ask anything of Him, including an understanding of His Word? Through the Bible. Therefore, when we wonder about a verse in the Bible, we return to the Bible for an explanation.
Biblical Support of the Second Rule
The biblical support for this rule is found in I Corinthians 2:13, and 14:32. These verses teach that we must go back to the Bible to understand the Bible.
First, let us look at I Corinthians 2:13. I Corinthians 2:13 explains the method by which God teaches His Word, as we read, "the Holy Ghost teacheth, comparing spiritual things with spiritual." Spiritual things are Words of God, as we read in John 6:63. God teaches His people to understand His words as He leads them to compare one part of the Bible with another part. Therefore, if we do not understand a verse, God will teach us when we go back to another part of the Bible and compare the verse with other verses. We compare the Bible with the Bible for understanding.
Next let us turn to I Corinthians 14:32. The word "spirits," in the phrase "the spirits of the prophets," is plural and does not refer to the Holy Spirit. It refers to the spiritual part of all the prophets, to the spiritual part of all men who are assigned to bring God's Word. It is the spiritual part of a man that is sensitive to the spiritual information that God gives him. In this verse, the words "the spirits of the prophets" apply to the men in Corinth who received a message from God. However, the words "to the prophets" refer to different prophets. Who are they? The word "prophets" in the phrase "to the prophets" refers to the prophets who spoke long ago and whose prophesies have been written down. In short, the words "to the prophets" apply to those men who wrote the Word of God, namely, all of the Bible that existed up to the time that Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians. It is to these ancient prophets that the men in Corinth "are subject."
This verse is not saying all the men in Corinth who received a message from God had to get together and discuss the prophesies that each had and then form some sort of consensus about what God meant. Rather, the idea of this verse is that any message from God that a man brings to the congregation has an appointed meaning, assigned to it by other prophets, that is, the Word of God. The spirits of the prophets that brought a Word from God to the Corinthians were subject to the Word of God. Today, of course, true prophets of God, men who bring messages to the church, talk not about new revelation but of what has already been written about in the Bible. Therefore the rule of this verse is that what men teach today is subject to the scrutiny of the Bible.
Therefore, we come to the same conclusion as we do in I Corinthians 2:13. When we do not understand a part of the Bible, we must ask God for wisdom and listen to Him in the only place He speaks today, the Bible. That is a foundational rule in Bible study that serves as a beacon which guides us to the truth. We must compare scripture with scripture.
Illustrating the Second Rule
We can illustrate this rule in the following way. For as long as people have studied the Bible, they have reached a point in their study in which they have asked the question, "what does that mean?" And for as long as people have studied the Bible there have been only two ways of answering that question. Let me illustrate those two ways with the following story.
Imagine for a moment you receive a letter from a good friend who lives in a different city. Let's say that the letter is several pages long and as you read it some parts are clear and easy to understand while other parts are hard to figure out. Now you have a problem. What did your friend mean by those obscure passages? In our story, we will assume that he is a good friend and you really want to understand all of his letter. It is important to you. There are only two possible solutions to your problem.
First of all, you could put your friend's letter on a table, set down some paper next to it, and then proceed to rewrite the letter sentence by sentence. When you come to those parts that have a fairly obvious meaning, you could just copy them without any changes. However, when you come to those parts whose meaning you can't figure out, you would have to set it down in different words so that it would make more sense to you. If you were really good friends and were familiar how he thought, maybe you would guess right and end up with a sentence that was pretty close to what he had intended. When you finished your copy, you would have a letter that contained just about everything that he wrote, with some parts modified so that you could more easily read and understand them. That is one thing that you could do.
There is a second thing that you could do that would be a lot easier and assure you of understanding the difficult parts perfectly. You could reach for your telephone, call him and ask him about those parts of his letter that you didn't understand. That sounds so simple doesn't it? It not only is easier than struggling to discover or invent a meaning, but also it is the only way to be sure that you understand your friend correctly.
This little story shows the two ways that people try to understand the Bible. The first way is a very poor way to study the Bible. Unfortunately, it is the method that has been usually used through out time and is the most popular method today. Many people try to use clever assumptions and educated guesses in order to get at the real meaning of the Bible. However, pious scholarship and impressive research in the writing style and culture of the times in which the Bible was written only results in weariness of the flesh as well as libraries full of books. That does not result in an accurate and clear understanding of the Bible. On the other hand, a few people seek understanding of the Bible from the One who wrote it in the first place and Who also speaks to them through the Bible. That is the only way that anyone can be sure that he understands the Bible correctly.
So in summary we can either guess or we can ask. Those are the only two ways to understand something that has been written to us by someone else. In the case of the Bible, we ask God, who answers us through the Bible.
Incidentally, if we compare scripture with scripture, we can be quite bold in our stand of an interpretation, that is, if we have done our homework well. This boldness is often an irritation to those who take the "guess" approach in as much as they think that we ought to be tolerant of all opinions and that Bible verses allow different interpretations depending upon a person's point of view. However, the Bible is subject only to the Person who wrote it in the first place, God.
An Example of the Application of the Second Rule
Let us consider Judges 1:6. We shall try to understand the phrase "and cut off his thumbs and his great toes." What a strange phrase. How bizarre. We could just decide that the men of Judah and Simeon were so vengeful, or full of the emotion of battle, that they got carried away and maimed the king, their chief enemy. Or we could try to fit that brutal behavior into the culture of the times and dismiss it an imitation of the typical barbaric behavior of their neighbors. The explanation might sound logical to men, but it is not good Bible study.
On the other hand, we can apply the second rule to our verse as we try to answer the question, "What does God have to say about this phrase?" Going back to the Bible, we read the following in Exodus 29:20. "Then shalt thou (Moses) kill the ram, and take of his blood, and put it upon the tip of the right ear of Aaron, and upon the tip of the right ear of his sons, and upon the thumb of their right hand, and upon the great toe of their right foot, and sprinkle the blood upon the alter round about."
Now we do not have to guess about the meaning of Judges 1:6. We have only to ask, "How could the king of Judah's enemies ever be consecrated by the ram of sacrifice if he did not have a right thumb or right toe?" The answer is that he could not be. The picture of Judges is that the enemy king cannot not covered by the blood sacrifice because he no longer has a right thumb and right big toe. He is cursed, without any hope of a sacrificial covering. He is a picture of Satan who is the king of the nation that opposes the kingdom of God and his people who and are not covered by Jesus' blood and so are condemned. Judges 1:6 is an Old Testament edition of Philippians 3:18,19.
The Third Rule
The third rule is, we must think of and express what we learn from the Bible the same way God does. We must put aside the words and phrases we have acquired during our lives, if they confuse and interfere with a clear understanding of what the Bible teaches. When discussing the lessons found in the Bible, we must exchange the expressions to which we are accustomed with those found in the Bible as much as possible, whenever our own expressions may obscure Bible truth.
This rule is based upon the fact that God is wiser than we are, not only in what He says, but also in the way that He says it. Because we must think about and express the truths that we find in the Bible in the same way that God does, we must learn to use His vocabulary and grammar. We must use the words and phrases He uses. We must talk and write in the same way He does. Conversely, the more we think about and try to explain a verse by using words invented by man, the more careful we must be to be sure that have not strayed away from the truth that the Bible teaches.
Bible support for the Third Rule
The biblical support for this rule is found in many places. We shall look at Psalm 119:11 and John 17:17.
Psalm 119:11 does not say "God's ideas have I hid in my heart." or "God's concepts have I hid in my heart." It says "Thy word ....." The idea is we must memorize the Bible word-for-word so that we will be able to recall it faithfully in a time of need. We never memorize God's Word in general. We memorize specific verses that contain specific words. To the extent that we remember God's own words, we will have the power of His Word to help us. We are not guaranteed anything if we only have a general idea of a verse or if we only can rephrase it approximately, in similar but different words.
In the same way, the Bible says in John 17:17 that God's Word is true, even, as we read in Galatians 3:16, to a single letter. From God's point of view, His choice of words is not incidental. Nor are the words He uses interchangeable with others, as in a paraphrase. Words are His invention not man's. The words he uses have precise and unique meanings. So, we must conform to both what God says as well as they way in which He says it.
The Bible does not contain truth which we must somehow extract by the best possible explanation. Our explanations do not become truth to the degree that they conform to the intent of the Bible. Instead, the Bible words themselves are truth and nothing else can be trusted. Therefore, if we want to stay as close to the truth, we must be careful to choose words and expressions that are as close as possible to those that God uses.
Illustrating the Third Rule
Let me illustrate the third rule by showing how the wrong use of words can be an impediment to and even destroy truth, in the sense that the words we use to talk about the contents of the Bible can confuse people and lead them away from the truth. For centuries, students of the Bible have debated, wrestled and expounded upon the question "How do we reconcile God's sovereignty and man's responsibility?" People who puzzle over this question wonder how an Almighty God can be in control of all things in the universe, if at the same time man has the mind to decide and the ability to either respond positively to God's offer of salvation or to rebelliously reject it. This apparent conflict shows how our thinking can be abducted and imprisoned by words. Let me resolve this apparent conflict and free our minds to think correctly.
Consider a concordance of the English language, say a Strong's or a Young's concordance. In either concordance we will be able to find every word that occurs in the English King James Bible and, if we work at hard enough, every word that occurs in the original Hebrew and Greek Bibles together with the verses in which these words are found. So I ask, "How many times does the word "responsibility" or "responsible" occur in the Bible?" In fact, if we add to that the number of times that the words "respond" or "response" occur, how big would that number be? Would we guess more than 100? Less that 100? Less than 50? Less than 10? Did you know that all the words together occur exactly zero times? That's right. The words "responsibility" or "responsible" are never found in the Bible.
"Well," someone might object, "that might be true but the idea is there even if the English word is not. After all," the objector might continue, "we have to use English words that people understand in order to explain what Bible verses mean." However that objection is not really valid. It is true that when we explain the contents of the Bible, we sometimes use words that are not used in the Bible. The word Trinity is one example. But since those words do not come from the Bible, they carry meanings with them that they import from the world in which they originate. So we must use them with care.
The word "responsibility" seems like such a respectable Bible word, or at least it seems to express an honorable Bible idea. But the idea it conveys is not a true one. In fact, if it is not used carefully, the word "responsibility" is a very destructive word. It means just what it says, "respond" plus "ability" which equals to "the ability to respond." Now God is sovereign indeed. But does the Bible teach that man can in anyway respond to the will of God? The answer is absolutely "No." Man is totally dead and is not able to respond to God (Eph. 2:1). Man is not spiritually responsible at all.
Now we can clearly see the whole issue. The issue is not God's sovereignty verses man's responsibility. For man cannot respond. The real issue is God's sovereignty verses man's accountability, and the word "account" is the Bible. It is true that God is King of His universe and does exactly what He wills without a rival in anyone including man. But it is also true that man must answer for his wickedness. Unsaved people will give an account to God for their rebellion. In this way the apparent conflict resolves itself into two biblically compatible facts.
This illustration shows how a sloppy vocabulary leads to sloppy thinking and eventually to wrong thinking. In summary, we can use words to explain or to distort the contents of the Bible. The call of the Bible is to say Bible truths in the Bible's way.
An Example of the Application of the Third Rule.
Let us try to understand the words "Jesus" and "God." The Bible has much to say about both of these words. But we must be careful when we put ideas together so that we express a conclusion supported by the Bible. For example, the Bible tells us Mary was the mother of Jesus. The Bible also tells us Jesus is fully God, Immanuel. However, we cannot put those two facts together to conclude that Mary is the mother of God. The Son, the second Person of the Trinity, added to Himself flesh in the form of Jesus, so the moment Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit His humanity began. But that was not the beginning of God. Mary did not have anything to do with the existence of God. She was recruited to give birth to the body which the second Person put on in order to be a Savior.
In a similar example, the Bible tells us Jesus died for the sins of His people. And, to repeat, the Bible tells us Jesus is God. However, we cannot say in truth that God died. For one thing God cannot die. He never has and never will. He is an eternal Spirit. Secondly, God's death would not be the atonement required as payment for sin. Man sinned and man must pay for sin. That is the perfect justice of God. It is for that reason the Son added to Himself a human nature. His human part that died and His God part sustained Him so that He would not be consumed by the wrath of God.. All of this does not mean we fully understand what God did to pay for the sins of His people. But it does mean we must be careful to use words in the way that the Bible uses them. In our efforts to make the message of the Bible clearer or to draw conclusion, we must limit how we think and express Bible truths to the way in which the Bible itself does in order to avoid thinking and saying things that are incorrect.