Spring is approaching and many of us are taking inventory of our gardening tools. preparing flower beds and plowing the garden. No, an article from Farm Journal hasn’t slipped into The Outlook. I am not suggesting how to have a more successful garden, but I do want to consider cultivation—the cultivation of the human soul and mind.
The Christian Is to grow and bear fruit. In order to do so, there are certain things a person should practice to cultivate spiritual character. One of the most important of these things is Bible study. If a Christian is to grow and bear fruit. he must be cultivating his soul and mind with the study of the Bible. Yet. even though most Christians recognize the Importance of Bible study, many, perhaps the majority, do not regularly and consistently practice it.
A few years ago a survey on the subject was taken in a large adult Sunday school class. Although everyone agreed that Bible study was important, almost two-thirds of the class were not involved in it themselves.
Many attributed this neglect to problems related to the mechanics of studying the Bible. Some of the problems mentioned included lack of time. Inability to understand what was read. ignorance of the proper tools and ignorance of how to begin. These are common problems. but as surprising as it may be, there are some fairly simple solutions. Let’s consider these solutions by using the analogy of planting a garden.
As the time approaches for planting the garden, the first thing you need to do Is to take an inventory of your tools. There are the basic tools that all gardeners must have—a shovel, a hoe, a garden rake and a garden hose—and then there are the extras that many pick up along the way—a roto-tiller and a garden tractor. So it is with doing Bible study. There are tools that you must have. and there are additional tools that you may want to use as you become more proficient at the job.
Of course the most basic tool is a good study Bible. Obviously, if anyone plans to study the Bible, he must have one to study! But there are certain characteristics for a good study Bible.
First, it should be a translation which is understandable to the reader and faithful to the original languages. For years the King James version has been the favorite: but many people have trouble studying the King James version since some of its words and phrases are not contemporary English. Some modern translations that are understandable and faithful are : The New American Bible, The New International Version and The New King James Version. Even if you prefer the King James Version, it would be helpful to use one of these other translations for comparison.
Second, it should have a cross reference system. This is a list of references either in the margin or the center of the page which point the reader to other places in the Bible relating to the passage being studied. Such a system is an indispensable aid for meaningful Bible study.
Third, a study Bible ought to have maps in the back. Frequently a passage can be illuminated by an understanding of the geography involved.
A second basic tool for your study is a notebook. Making notes on your reading helps in understanding and remembering what you read. Use the notebook for outlining chapters. paraphrasing verses, recording key ideas, commands and promIses and making notes for application. As your notebook develops, you are compiling a personal commentary on the Bible.
A third basic tool is an English language dictionary. A basic problem in understanding the Bible is unfamiliar vocabulary. An English language dictionary enables you to look up unknown words. It is true that sometimes a word in the Bible will have a more doctrinal or precise definition than may be found in the dictionary, but the meaning of most unfamiliar words may be determined by using one.
These then are the basic tools: a study Bible, a notebook and an English language dictionary.
In addition to the basics. there are some very helpful secondary tools for further study.
First, there is the Bible dictionary or ‘handbook, a volume which tells about people, places. cultures and doctrines found in the Bible. along with a capsule analysis of each book. Two very helpful items in this category are The New Bible Dictionary and Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible.
Another helpful book is a commentary. How foolish many modem Christians are to imagine that a person should interpret the Bible in a historical vacuum. God has given to the church gifted men who throughout her history have contributed to the proper understanding of the Bible.
The best one-volume commentary is lnter-Varsity’s New Bible Commentary: Revised. For the Bible student who wants something a little more thorough. there is the three-volume Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible or the six volume Matthew Henry’s Commentary. Of course, commentaries on individual books of the Bible are also available.
A third advanced tool is a Bible concordance. A concordance enables you to study words and themes employed in the Bible. The two most complete concordances are Young’s Analytical Concordance and Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance.
A fourth tool is a basic book on theology. One of the most helpful is your Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms or the Three Forms of Unity. Every Reformed/Presbyterian home ought to have a copy of its doctrinal standard. Another helpful item is Berkhof’s Manual of Christian Doctrine.
One other helpful secondary tool is a Bible atlas which is used to study the geography of the Bible lands. One of the best is the MacMillan Bible Atlas. A smaller but still helpful work is Hammond’s Atlas of the Bible Lands.
BUT HOW DO YOU INTERPRET IT?
Once the tools are selected, what’s your next step? In gardening there are certain basic principles or rules that you must observe. For example, you must know when to plant the seeds, how much space to give to each plant and how much sunshine and what kind of soil each plant needs. In doing Bible study there are also certain basic rules or principles that you must keep in mind.
There are certain principles for Interpreting prophecy, figures of speech and parables. It is not my purpose to deal with these. If you are interested in further study, read T. Norton Sterrett’s How to Understand Your Bible or R.C. Sproul’s Knowing Scripture. For a more detailed study there is Louis Berkhof’s volume, Principles of Biblical Interpretation.
But there are some general principles of interpretation that each of us should keep in mind as we study.
The Bible uses language in a normal way. Of course there are special words in the Bible such as “redemption,” “justification” and “sanctification” which have a more technical meaning. But we must remember that the Bible uses words and grammar much as any other book. The Bible was not written in some vague, mysterious language which only the special few can understand. You should read the Bible in the same way you would any other book. If the sentence in the Bible has a question mark, then it is a question. If it has a condition, then it is like any other conditional sentence. Remember, don’t make the Bible harder than it is!
Don’t depend on your own ability alone to understand the message of the Bible. Believers have been promised the Holy Spirit to help us understand God’s message. We should begin Bible study by praying for the Holy Spirit’s illumination.
One should always study a passage in the light of its context (what has been written before and after the passage in question). No one who begins reading a book in the middle really understands what he reads, yet we frequently select a verse in the middle of a chapter without reading what has come before or gone after, and wonder why we can’t understand the verse.
Another principle is the need to compare Scripture with Scripture. The Bible does not contradict itself. God didn’t reveal one thing to Paul and Just the opposite to Peter. So we need to weigh what is being said by comparing the passage being studied with other sections which bear upon it. For example, the Bible says that God is a Spirit: however, in other places it speaks of the eyes, hands and feet of the Lord. Obviously, God cannot be a Spirit and also have bodily parts. By comparing Scripture with Scripture one understands that the Bible refers to God’s having eyes, hands and feet in order to demonstrate that God as a Spirit is able to do the same things that a person employs his eyes, hands and feet to do. The use of cross-references is an effective way to compare Scripture with Scripture.
One additional principle to have in mind is that we must read the Bible looking for Christ and His relationship to His people. As our salvation is in Christ, so God’s message to us is about Christ. In the Old as well as the New Testament one should determine to see Jesus Christ.
HOW DO YOU BEGIN?
These then are some basic principles which should guide each of us in our Bible study. But what now? How and where does one begin? In gardening, once you have the tools and a basic idea of what you are going to do, you must then know how to begin—select a plot of ground, decide what kind of seed and how much of each kind to plant. That procedure is also important for Bible study. We must know where to begin. It is often at this point that good resolutions to study the Bible crumple in defeat and frustration.
To begin with, decide on the time and place for your study. Often we don’t have time for Bible study because we don’t make the time. A person makes time for what is most important to him. Failure in setting a time can lead to defeat. Either we forget about Bible study or we think of all the other things that must be done and never get around to studying the Bible. Each of us should work out a schedule that establishes a suitable time for Bible study and prayer. The same time each day, if possible, will aid you in setting a pattern.
All this may be said about selecting a place. It is very helpful to have a regular place set aside for Bible study, a place where your study tools are kept and in which you can have some degree of privacy. In the family we should work out the time and place with the other members of the family so that all may cooperate in respecting one another’s time and place for Bible study. Granted, your circumstances and family relationships may not allow this. All right. Develop a creative alternative, something which for you will work just as well.
Then decide what kind ofstudy you will pursue. A large vartety of options and selections depends on your needs, inclinations and interests.
Some will want to make a survey of the Bible, reading it through over a period of time. There are many different schedules available that will enable a person to read through the Bible within a year or two. It is wise to choose a schedule and stick to it. Banner of Truth publishes a yearly schedule. I have prepared a three-year schedule that may be obtained upon request.
In survey reading, the purpose is not only to read a given amount of material, but also to learn something a bout the Bible’s message. As you read, use your notebook to write down your thoughts on each chapter. There are three appropriate questions to ask about every passage studied. What did it mean to those for whom It was written? What does it mean now? And what is the application? Remember in the Old Testament to note what is being said about Christ and the church.
Those who have a general view of the flow of the Bible may wish to study a particular book. After choosing a book (begin with a gospel or an epistle), study a short passage each day. With this technique you will have more time to analyze the passage. using cross-references and other helps. Make thorough notes.
Still another approach is the thematic study in which a person studies certain Biblical themes. Say, for example, you want to study the theme of redemption. Using a concordance, you would begin by studying all the passages in the Old and New Testaments that refer to redemption. But then you must remember that there are many other terms like redeem, atonement. and sacrifice that you will also want to check. Note the passages in which a particular term is not used but which deals with the theme. By keeping a notebook of the different doctrines you discover in the Bible, you’ll have a growing doctrinal reference system. Cross-references are also useful in tracing themes through the Bible.
No matter what direction your study takes, if you are not now engaged in Bible study, today is the time to start. Make sure you have the tools on hand, get the principles in mind, plan the time and place for your study, choose your course of study and begin. Now is the time to cultivate a garden that will bring forth abundant fruit for the Lord.
Dr. Pipa is the Director for Advanced Studies at Westminster Seminary, Escondido, CA.