Superior to any other book, the Bible informs us of humanity’s origin, history, present condition, and distinct destinies. It is our Creator’s complete, fully inspired message regarding our need for salvation and purpose of righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Therefore, our copy of the Bible is our most valuable, tangible possession.
Careful study of it becomes just as crucial as its inspired claim. Can anyone read and clearly understand God’s complete, authoritative will for humanity? Was God powerful enough to create us, but not wise enough to write a book we could understand? By no means! God does not create confusion (1 Cor. 14:33). Yet, many believe the Bible is a confusing book. Many reasons why will be revealed as we address the principles and steps for anyone’s personal study. Admittedly, Scripture contains simple essentials as well as profound themes. Mere humans could never successfully chart the borders of God’s infinite wisdom. But whether studying the simple or heftier matters, each soul is best blessed with proper growth when letting Scripture be its own best commentary. How is this practiced?
1) Respect Scripture’s Claim. The Bible does not claim to merely contain God’s Word; it claims to entirely be God’s Word. 2 Timothy 3:16, John 16:13-16, and 2 Peter 1:21 collectively serve as their own commentary to claim full inspiration from Genesis through Revelation. As such, Scripture would logically be its own reliable resource for explanation and cohesive thought. As one’s study increasingly discovers this to be so, his or her confidence in the credibility of its inspired claim will only increase. Yet, regardless of one’s belief of inspiration, there would still be far less debate over its teachings if people chose to simply respect Scripture’s claim enough to let it explain itself.
2) Handle It Correctly. Scripture’s claim and our salvation are too serious to take lightly. Thus, 2 Timothy 2:15 should describe our study habits. Careful diligence is required to both accurately handle and apply Scripture. Can this be easily accomplished? Accurate interpretation can be achieved by keeping the following points in mind.
3) Know the Flow of Scripture. Scripture is not a collection of random sayings. Its extraordinary narrative reveals a marvelous scheme of revelation. It has been commonly stated that Scripture has only three chapters. The “first chapter” is comprised simply of Genesis 1-2. Here we learn of God’s creative power of the universe and humankind after his likeness. The “second chapter” is comprised only of Genesis 3. Here we learn of humanity’s fall to sin and its consequence of separation from God. The “third chapter” picks up from there and continues through the rest of Scripture to Revelation 22. It shows the entirety of God’s plan of redemption through the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus.
I heard a preacher explain it in the following way:
“Within this larger ‘chapter,’ the most significant distinction is between the Old Covenant and the New Testament…The Old Testament is the covenant God made about salvation before Christ came. The New Testament is the covenant God made about salvation after Christ came. In the Old Testament, we find the covenant of Law. In the New Testament, we find the covenant of Grace (through Christ). One led to the other (Gal. 3:17-25). The Old commences what the New completes. The Old gathers around Sinai; the New gathers around Calvary. The Old is associated with Moses; the New centers around Christ. From Adam to Abraham we have the history of the human race; from Abraham to Christ, the history of the selected race; from Christ forward, the history of the church, for everyone.”
God’s nature and behavior are constant and consistent, but his specific instructions will vary depending on where they appear in Scripture’s progressive flow. For example, in Old Testament Leviticus strict rules are established for animals sacrifices. But in the New Testament in Hebrews 9, such commands are nullified since Jesus became humanity’s absolute and final sacrifice! Such beautiful, world-changing truths are best seen when learning the chronological order of Scripture.
4) The Context. Both the larger and immediate context of a passage is vital to learning its meaning. Before asking, “What does this passage mean to me?”, we must ask, “What was this writer intending by this statement when he first wrote it?” Without this crucial element in biblical interpretation, Scripture can mean anything we want it to mean.
Consider these examples of how verses stated apart from context do not convey intended meaning:
“A feast and wine make merry, but money answers all things” (Eccl. 10:19). How could such averse, seemingly condoning indulgence of every carnal desire and sin, even be in Scripture? We must consider its context. Where is it found? What is being discussed in the chapter? What is that particular book’s purpose? Who wrote it? What is the writer facing at this time in his life? Frankly, what would we think of the entire book of Ecclesiastes if not for it stating “the conclusion of the whole matter” (Eccl. 12:13)?
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). I suspect if merchandise were to include the surrounding four verses, the general public would leave those products on the shelves. It is more carnally pleasing to believe we can achieve any personal goal and more invigorating to convince ourselves that God’s power will ensure achievement of personal ambitions. Yet, context reveals a less popular but far deeper and comforting truth to those loyal to Christ. Despite the severity of temporary trials and hardships which often plague the righteous, God’s Spirit of truth will sustain the faithful soul through adverse circumstances. This marvelous perspective and promise are simply not as easily seen if the context is ignored.
For your personal study, enjoy letting Scripture’s flow and context bless your understanding of these commonly misapplied verses: Psalm 118:24; 2 Corinthians 6:2; Amos 4:12; Matthew 18:20; Philippians 2:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:22; 1 Timothy 2:12; Romans 14:7; Psalm 90:10; 1 Corinthians 2:9.
5) Letting It Speak (2 Tim. 3:16-17). It’s very easy to quickly impose a preferred view onto a passage without hearing what it has to say. Also, the nature of Scripture’s clear moral teaching will expose the darkness in people’s hearts. It is only natural for the hard heart to contest, reject and ignore its warnings. Admittedly, it is difficult for any of us to not let conditioned biases close our ears and influence our understanding of a passage. But attempts to massage a preconceived notions into its writing will prevent the Word from having its intended effect and blessing. Holy Scripture intends to make us holy and more like Christ daily (1 Pet. 1:16; Rom. 8:29). Let us decide to be open to hearing the Word speak. Then it can have its intended impact upon our hearts.
6) Compare Scripture With Itself. Concerning the basics or more profound matters, simply correlating Scripture with itself will exponentially mature one’s proper understanding of Scripture. Helpful tools to accomplish this include Bibles with a cross reference, a concordance and/or topic study section, and Bible apps with word-search capabilities. One may ask if commentaries are helpful study tools. Yes, they can be…but there are cautions to consider. Commentaries have one major flaw: they are written by uninspired people. Common misuse of this tool is a full and unchecked acceptance of its exegesis. How do problems arise when we elevate teachings of mere people? Remember that for any commentary’s exegesis on a passage, another can be shown that presents a totally different, even opposing view. While it is beneficial to learn from other’s work, we must esteem inspired Scripture. The best commentary for a difficult passage of Scripture is other passages of Scripture.
7) Correlate Study With Prayer. Bible study can get challenging. Believers will read and happily heed the clear instruction to include prayer for God’s guidance and wisdom in study (cf. Eph. 6:17; Rom. 8:26; James 1:6). It is amazing how much clearer the Bible can become to those who diligently pray and study to know God’s will.
Not everyone chooses to correctly handle Scripture. Now you know how to do so. May God bless you in your study of his Word!
Michael preaches for the Oak Hill congregation in Rome, GA.