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How to Study the Bible
Plain Truth Magazine
February 1980
Volume: Vol 45, No.2
Issue: ISSN 0032-0420
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How to Study the Bible
David Jon Hill   
Church of God

Died: Nov 24, 2003
Member Since: 1951

   IN BIBLE study, as well as with anything else, there is a proper and an improper way to accomplish. There are certain rules which, if followed, will give you a more thorough understanding of God's Word — leave you with fewer questions, begin to help you think and act as God does because you understand what He says in His Word.
   The following rules are not necessarily in order — they are certainly not all the rules of Bible study — but they are basic and important and will help you gain the truth from God's Word.

Pray for Guidance

   First, before you even open the Bible, you should ask God, in prayer, to open your mind to His Word in the study you intend to make. David was a man after God's own heart — he studied that portion of God's Word which was available to him in his day. He meditated, thought about and considered God's laws and his ways. He was close to God, and yet many times throughout the Psalms we read how David asked God to guide him in his study, to open his mind, to reveal His truth.
   "Teach me, O Lord, the way of thy statutes; and I shall keep it unto the end. Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law; yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart. Make me to go in the path of thy commandments; for therein do I delight. Incline my heart unto thy testimonies, and not to covetousness .... Stablish thy word unto thy servant, who is devoted to thy fear.... Behold, I have longed after thy precepts: Quicken me in thy righteousness" (Psalms 119:33-40).
   Without sincerely and believingly asking God's direction in your Bible study — without seeking God's Kingdom and His righteousness first (Matthew 6:33) — Bible study of itself would be ultimately futile. Just as you can worship God in vain (Mark 7:7), so you can study His Word in vain! Many wise and intelligent men have made a life study of God's Word in its original languages, and yet did not understand the depth of its meaning.

Formal Education Not Necessary

   Do not feel that you have not had enough education, or that you are not intelligent enough to really study God's Word. God tells us plainly that it is not the wise, the mighty or the noble that He is calling to an understanding of His Word now — read I Corinthians 1:25-27.
   Take for granted that you do not know of yourself how to understand the plan of God — that's why you must ask Him to make it plain.
   If all that was needed to understand God's Word were brains, then a vast number of the people of the world would have a thorough understanding of God's Word! God says, "... They are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge" (Jeremiah 4:22). As long as you know how to read, you can get down on your knees and sincerely ask God to guide you in a study of His Word. He will open your mind to understand things that the most intelligent minds of mankind have not been able to understand. Prayer will open to you an understanding of God's Word that Einstein did not have. Prayer will open your mind to understand God's Word in a way that the graduates of the great universities of the world are not able to understand.
   Prayer — your contact with God is important in the beginning of your study of His Word — His contact with you — or you may spend profitless hours of studying His Word in vain. The time spent, the verses covered, your memorization of how many verses there are in the Bible, will be of little avail at the return of Jesus Christ if accomplished for vain purposes. Only that part of His Word which you have made a part of your very character will accrue to your spiritual account!
   Heartfelt prayer for God's guidance in your personal Bible study will help insure success!

Attitude Must Be for Self-Correction

   This next rule really goes hand-in-hand with the first. Before you rise from your knees in prayer, you should fully recognize in your own mind and heart that your purpose for this Bible study is not just to gain academic knowledge, not only to prove a certain doctrine or fact — but to get you closer to the stature of the fullness of the very character of Jesus Christ. The only way this can be done is for you to be corrected!
   God's Word is written directly to each of us as an individual — it is personal, direct — and as far as our achieving salvation is concerned has nothing to do with anybody else on the face of the earth.
   Therefore your attitude should be the same as Jeremiah's. In fact, since you're going to be studying the Bible, turn to Jeremiah 10:23 and read two verses there meaningfully and as part of your prayer. "O Lord, — I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps. O Lord, correct me, but with judgment; not in thine anger, lest thou bring me to nothing."
   Remember, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (II Timothy 3:16).
   In order for your attitude to be proper in your approach to God's Word, turning to one other scripture would clearly aid you in understanding what your approach should be — in educating your attitude to be right before you begin. "Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest? For all these things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.... Hear the word of the Lord, ye that tremble at his word" (Isaiah 66:1-2, 5).
   This Bible contains the very mind and thoughts of your Creator God! It is not to be argued about. It is not meant to be a club to chastise other people with. In other words, if you are a husband, do not use Ephesians 5:22 as a weapon against your wife — or, if you are a wife, do not use Ephesians 5:25 as a weapon against your husband. But each of you as husband or wife should apply Scripture to yourself
   The Bible commands you to "study [be diligent] to show yourself approved unto God... " (II Timothy 2:15).

Prove All Things

   This third rule is in a way an extension of the proper attitude of self-correction. Your approach to God's Word should be completely positive! The example given by the Bereans in Acts 17:11: "These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so" — this was a positive attitude. The Bereans were not searching the Scriptures to prove Paul was wrong. They were not negative, angry, bitter.
   So if you have heard something about the Bible that you do not fully understand, your approach in your own personal Bible study should prove that it is so.
   Notice I Thessalonians 5:21 which says "Prove all things." This word "prove" is positive. That is the one main point of this particular rule of Bible study. But the word itself means "to put to the test." There are proving grounds on which the modern automobiles manufactured in Detroit are tested. In the parable Jesus Christ uses regarding the wedding supper, there is a reference to a man who had just bought five yoke of oxen. The excuse he gave for not coming to the supper was that he wanted to "prove" these oxen (Luke 14:19). This is the same Greek word as used in I Thessalonians 5:21.
   It meant he wanted to be excused from the wedding supper so that he might take the oxen out to the field,. yoke them up, hook a plow behind them and find out whether they would be able to do what oxen are supposed to be able to do. This is basically what Paul is saying in I Thessalonians 5:21.
   For example, God commands us in the book of Malachi to prove Him in tithing. What He wants us to do is just as the principle is throughout the entire Bible — to do what He says to do. "Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me [test me] now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it" (Malachi 3:10). This is a positive going forward, a finding out of what God does say, not a search for error or disproof.

Bible Never Contradicts Itself

   Make no mistake about it. If the Bible is inspired by God through human instruments (II Timothy 3:15-16; II Peter 1:21), there can be no errors in it as originally written. Jesus plainly said, "The scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). The Bible does not contradict itself.
   So if you have difficulty in understanding any particular scripture — if it seems to say something different from another scripture, you may just need to study further. Always remember beyond any shadow of a doubt the principle of rule four: that God never contradicts Himself. Therefore, either your understanding of the particular scripture or the translation that you are reading is incorrect or misunderstood.
   The very source of truth is God's Word (John 17:17) — and unless your approach to it, your study of it, is from this point of view you will gain little spiritual understanding from it.
   Let's notice an apparent contradiction appearing in Proverbs 26:4, 5. Verse four reads: "Answer not a fool according to his folly." Yet, the very next verse tells us: "Answer a fool according to his folly."
   Actually, these two verses are not contradictory — but complementary! The use of either verse — that is, its principle applied to a particular use — depends on the set of circumstances. Both these verses contain gems of wisdom that each one of us needs to learn to properly apply in answering other people's questions.
   The last part of each verse holds the key which unlocks the meaning of these verses — and shows them to be practical, usable and wise principles.
   Verse, four reads: "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him." The last part of the verse holds the key: Don't degrade yourself by descending to his level in an argument! Don't harangue — don't bite back, don't try to "argue back" — with someone who is obviously trying to stir contention.
   Verse 5 reads: "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit." In this case, if you don't answer his question — if you don't accept his challenge — he is going to think himself to be wise!
   Time and circumstances are both crucial to understanding these twin proverbs. Remember: "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavenů" a time to keep silence, and a time to speak" (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7).
   Both time and circumstances would indicate to the wise man when to apply Proverbs 26:4 and when to. apply Proverbs 26:5. Sometimes Jesus, in the Gospel accounts, answered His adversaries and sometimes He did not.
   There is no contradiction! But rather much wisdom in these two verses. Wisdom we need to apply in our daily lives.

What Does the Bible Say?

   Many times our misunderstanding comes from the confusion that this world causes — from misinterpretation, a direct twisting of a scripture to conform to false doctrines.
   "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight" (Isaiah 5:20-23). Many who claim to be representatives of God, the interpreters of His Word, twist and wrest that Word to their own destruction and the destruction of their hearers.
   So always remember to ask yourself — and, answer — the question: "What does the Bible say?"
   John 3:6 is a good example of this. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit IS spirit." This is a very clear scripture, explaining that flesh is flesh and spirit is spirit. That's what the Bible says.
   Sometimes you may have to refer to a reference work (which we will cover under a separate rule) for scriptures such as I John 5:7.
   Or perhaps a note in the margin of your Bible or another translation will help you understand a scripture that seems to contradict what you know to be the truth. Take the example of Luke 17:20-21: "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you."
"Oftentimes people think that the Bible is contradicting itself when actually all it is doing is supplementing itself"
Here, the Bible does say, "The Kingdom of God is within you." But here it is the King James translation which says this — not necessarily God's exact Word. So, since it is not clear in the King James translation, other aids are necessary to find out what it does say.
   This leads automatically to another important rule of Bible study.

Check the Context

   Context means, con — with, text — text. In order to check the context, you merely read the texts which come with the text that is in question. You read the texts before and the texts after. In this example of Luke 17:21, you need to also ask yourself a number of questions regarding the context. The text that is with (con) Luke 17:21, is Luke 17:20. This verse just before answers the question regarding verse 21, but in order to answer that question you must ask yourself the question, "Who?"
   In other words, you must ask yourself: if "the Kingdom of God is within you" — who is the "you" that the Bible is referring to? In this case verse 20 explains that it is the Pharisees! Certainly you know that Jesus Christ wasn't saying that the Kingdom of God is inside of Pharisees! Therefore, the con (with) text helps you see that there must be a mistranslation in this particular verse.
   And sure enough, when you check the margin of your Bible, you will find that the word "within" should be better translated "among" — referring to Jesus Himself as a representative of God's Kingdom who was at that time "among" the Pharisees! (Further information on this subject may be obtained by reading: Just What Do You Mean... Kingdom Of God?)
   In order to understand any scripture thoroughly, in its context, you need to ask yourself — and answer for yourself — all the following questions: What? When? Where? Why? Who? How? When you have answered these questions regarding any particular text, and you have read all of the accompanying texts, with the text in question, you will have God's answer to the problem.
   Believe it or not, there are even lies written in the, Bible, and you have to be careful that you ask yourself exactly what the Bible says in the entirety of the context of anyone statement. The Bible says, "Ye shall not surely die" (Genesis 3:4). This is a biblical statement! But in order to find out whether it's true or not you have to find out who said it. In this particular case, the same verse explains that Satan the devil said it, but in order to find out whether it is true or not (because sometimes even Satan tells, the truth), you have to go back in the context until you come to Genesis 2:17 where the Creator God is quoted as saying, "Thou shalt surely die." Then you know what the Bible, in its entirety and in its truth, does say!
   One particular hindrance in checking the context is the very presence of chapters and verses. While this system of division is certainly helpful in finding biblical passages, it can be misleading. Take the division between Matthew 16:28 and 17:1, for example. In order to understand Christ's enigmatic statement in the last verse of chapter 16, you have to read all the way to verse 9 of chapter 17. Yet, people tend to stop reading at chapter breaks. Sometimes an important key to understanding. a difficult scripture is just to continue reading beyond the chapter break.

Get All the Scriptures

   No one scripture can, of itself, taken out of context, be used to establish the truth. "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation" (II Peter 1:20).
   God has put His Bible together in a very unusual manner. He has written it so that men could study it intricately in its original languages, poring over its pages for their entire lifetime — and yet never come to a knowledge of the truth. Many people have memorized great sections of the Bible and yet not come to realize what those sections mean. You must take the whole Bible in its entire context, getting all of the scriptures in that Bible on anyone subject, before you can come to the knowledge of that particular subject from God's point of view.
   "Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line; line upon line; here a little, and there a little..." (Isaiah 28:9-10).
   That is how the converted mind is to study the Bible. Yet, when the unconverted study God's Word a little here and a little there, they are still not able to understand the message of God's truth because they do not have His Holy Spirit guiding them. That Holy Spirit — the very mind and understanding of God — is the power that inspired those words in the first place, and without that Spirit to inspire the understanding, the door to the Word of God remains shut! (The Holy Spirit is given only to those who obey God — Acts 5:32.) Continuing from Isaiah: "... But the word of the Lord was unto them [those who disobey] precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken" (Isaiah 28:13).
   Oftentimes people think that the Bible is contradicting itself when actually all it is doing is supplementing itself. A good example of this is found in Matthew 27:37 as compared to Luke 23:38. Here Matthew and Luke appear to contradict one another in their statements as to what was written on the sign affixed to the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified.
   Now while you're going through this article just take time to get your Bible and use this example to prove that getting all of the scriptures on anyone subject will give you God's understanding on it. In order to find out what was written on that sign, who wrote it, and how many languages it was written in, you will need to put at least four scriptures together, not just two. So turn first to Matthew 27:37, and write down what the Bible says was written on that sign. Then, go right on to Mark 15:26 and write beneath what you have written what Mark says was written on that sign. Then do the same with Luke 23:38 and also John 19:19. Put them all together and you will see what was written on that sign.
   If one of these scriptures were left out you would not know that it was Pilate who did the writing. If two of these scriptures were left out, you would not know that the writing was originally done in three languages. These four bits of information, each from a different author, supply us with a complete record of what was written there originally. No one scripture contradicts the other — each only serves to complement and round out the information of the other.
   Here is one important key in helping you grasp this point: Two or more Bible writers may approach the same subject from different angles. One writer may follow a strict chronological order. Another groups associated ideas together. One may write a detailed history. Another, will omit some events. Still another will compress a group of minor events together in a manner in which they appear to contradict another detailed account. But always remember that these accounts of the same event(s) complement — not contradict — each other.

Let the Bible Interpret the Bible

   So many people write in and comment how much they enjoy Mr. Armstrong's interpretation of the Bible. Time and again you will hear Mr. Armstrong explain to the television and radio audience that it is not his interpretation that is being heard, but only plain biblical truth!
   Romans 3:4 is a good clear principle to live by in this rule of Bible study: "... Let God be true, but every man a liar."
   The book of Revelation has long been an enigma to the people of the world. God says it is a book of revelation. THE WORLD SAYS it is a book of hidden mystery. People have come up with many weird interpretations for the book of Revelation — yet the book of Revelation is vivid in its own clear description and needs no interpretation.
   Take the case of the seven golden candlesticks that John saw in Revelation 1. You don't have to wonder what these seven golden candlesticks are — all you have to do is read on until you come, in the context, to verse 20; and that verse tells you plainly that the seven candlesticks are the seven churches. In verse 16 it states that John saw seven stars in the hand of the Son of man. There is no need to go into great eloquent illustrations of what the seven stars are, because again verse 20 reveals the plain Bible truth — no interpretation necessary — that the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. And so it goes through the rest of the Bible.
   All you have to do is be patient and search: God's Word and you will come up with God's clear answers to the muddled questions of mankind.

Don't Put Vague Scriptures First

   Perhaps a better general statement of yet another rule of Bible study would be: Never establish a doctrine by a vague or difficult-to-be-understood scripture.
   Too many people assume that the vision which Peter had regarding the unclean beasts lowered to him on a sheet affirms that God "cleansed" unclean meat. Because they take out of context a verse, unclear of itself, that says, "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common" (Acts 10:15). However, all they need to do is read on two more verses and verse 17 very plainly says that Peter himself doubted what the vision meant when he saw it. He didn't jump to any conclusions. Further reading in the same chapter will explain what Peter finally came to understand about the vision. Read verse 28: "God hath showed me [by means of this vision] that I should not call any MAN common or unclean."
   When studying anyone particular biblical subject or doctrine, begin with the plainer scriptures. Reserve the more obscure ones until you have more knowledge. Realize that some scriptures — if taken by themselves and out of context — can be made to say more than one thing. This is why it is important to observe a previous rule: Study all the scriptures on any one subject to get at the truth. But, always begin with plain, clear scriptures.
   When studying the law and the Ten Commandments, keep these clear and plain scriptures in mind: I John 3:4; 2:4; 5:2, 3; Matthew 5:17; 19:17. These scriptures cannot be twisted to say that God's law and commandments are abolished and no longer need to be obeyed.
   If heaven and hell is the subject, begin with such scriptures as John 3:13 and Acts 2:34. Then understand John 14:2 and Luke 16 in the light of John 3:13 and Acts 2:34. About the soul: Genesis 2:7, Psalms 146:4 and Ecclesiastes 9:5 are clear and plain. Matthew 10:28, on the other hand, is vague and obscure. Any such scripture must be understood in the light of the plainer ones.

Use Several Translations

   In Matthew 27:46 Jesus Christ, while hanging on the cross before He died, used the Aramaic translation of the first verse of Psalms 22. Even though the original Word of God was inspired in the Hebrew or the Greek (some portions of the books of Daniel and Ezra were inspired in Aramaic), God has allowed it to be translated into nearly every language spoken by mankind. If we were going to be particular about which language we used or which translation, then we would all have to learn Hebrew and Greek and study the Bible in its original languages.
   The King James Version was translated about 370 years ago. In the time since, the English language has undergone many changes. Sometimes those texts which are vague and unclear in the King James can be cleared up very easily by just reading a more modern translation such as the Revised Standard Version.
"All you have to do is be patient and search God's Word and you will come up with God's clear answers to the muddled questions of mankind."
   There is one thing to note about the King James translation, and that is regarding italics. This word italic is written in italics. Words that look like this in your King James Version are not in the original languages but are supplied by the translators. So everywhere in the King James Version where you notice words in italics they are supplied to help you understand the meaning of the sentence. However, the translators did not always supply the words correctly. So some few of these words in italics are incorrect and do not help, but rather hinder, your understanding.
   On the other hand, not all of the words which are supplied by the translators are in italics. Take I John 5:7 for instance, where the reference to three who bear witness in heaven is a completely erroneous reference inserted by a monk-copyist in the Middle Ages. The fact is, this particular verse appears only in the King James Version.
   Often these difficulties will be cleared up by merely reading more than one translation. Any questions arising after a thorough reading through several translations of any one verse will be relatively few, and can usually be handled by studying further in Bible helps.
   If there are words that you have difficulty in understanding, remember not only to look them up in an English dictionary such as Webster's, but if possible in a Bible dictionary or in a concordance so that you can see what the meaning of the word in the original is. Sometimes people will look up a word in a modern dictionary and find a definition that is not at all the sense of the word as used in the King James Version. Take for example the word "conversation" in I Peter 3. Conversation for us today means talking between two people. A dictionary will give this definition. However, in the time of King James, this particular word meant the entire conduct of a person, and that is the usual meaning in the Bible of this word.
   Another good example is the word "prevent." Its usual biblical meaning is to precede or go before, but it means to hinder in modern-day English. Therefore I Thessalonians 4:15 should be corrected to read: "... We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not precede [prevent] them which are asleep."
   Often a more modern translation such as the Revised Standard Version will also clear up many of these word problems. In order to understand certain biblical expressions, then, you need to understand the meaning in a modern dictionary.
   But this leads to our next rule.

Don't Establish Doctrine With "Bible Helps"

   No Bible help is the final authority on doctrine. They are, at best, helps — nothing more.
   A good Bible handbook — Halley's, for example — can be helpful for charts and tables. King lists, chronological data, and miscellaneous information are contained in these handbooks. The primary function of a Bible handbook would be to help organize your Bible study.
   Concordances list passages where words are used. They are invaluable in locating scriptures that deal with a specific subject.
   Commentaries are interpretive by nature and so must be used with great caution. The bias of the authors must be taken into consideration. Some are conservative or fundamentalist, others are liberal or critical. Before purchasing a set of commentaries, it is best to get some idea of the author's position. No commentary should be used to establish "the truth." At best, a commentary may help break open some meaning or insight that has been obscure. At worst they can lead you down the garden path into complete error. Use commentaries judiciously.
   A good Bible dictionary is invaluable for historical information about prevailing biblical cultures, geography, flora and fauna, customs, etc. There are many on the market, and most have some value.
   A Bible atlas can be of great help in understanding the geography and the logistics of biblical places and events.
   If you have some knowledge of Greek or Hebrew you will find lexicons of those biblical languages enormously helpful. The recommended Greek lexicon is Bauer, Arndt-Gingrich. For Hebrew, Brown, Driver and Briggs is best. These are both authoritative and expensive. And you have to understand the Hebrew and Greek alphabets in order to use them effectively (though separate English indexes are available for both of them). Most lay people will find these somewhat advanced and probably unnecessary.
   Again, no Bible help is the final authority for doctrine. Every source of information must be compared and weighed. Each has its rightful place in the enrichment of personal Bible study, but all must be used with caution and judgment.
   If you apply these rules diligently, your Bible study will take on new life and it will become more interesting and rewarding.

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Plain Truth MagazineFebruary 1980Vol 45, No.2ISSN 0032-0420
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