Sharpening Your Tools

     [EGW editor’s preface:  This article originally stems from a handout I received in Bible class many years ago at the Watertown church of Christ.  The handout presented a brief summary of basic general information about the Bible along with some practical suggestions for the beginning Bible student.  Since then I have occasionally added, and then rewritten, several paragraphs to assist my own efforts in teaching people to begin studying the Bible for themselves.
     (For more tips on good Bible-reading skills, click the subjects Hermeneutics and Bible study)]


Introducing Yourself to Bible Study
provided by David Churchill

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     If there is a God (and we are convinced there is); if He is a just God (and we are convinced He is); if He has a plan for us (and we are convinced He does);  then it is certain that He has given us the answers to our questions about that plan.
     The Bible, as God’s recorded revelation to the world, was written for that very purpose.  “
These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God,” the apostle John explains in 1 John 5:13, “in order that you may know that you have eternal life.”  In John 12:44-50, the same apostle records Jesus’ own explanation for teaching what He did — to deliver the words of God the Father so people could believe the message and accept eternal life — and a few chapters later in John 20:30-31, John explains why he wrote what he did about Jesus, “but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
     Therefore, our goal in studying the Bible is threefold:  1) find out God’s plan for us;  2
) find out about God’s offer of eternal life;  3) find out what He asks of us to accept that offer.  Like any worthwhile goal, this goal can only be reached with plenty of persistent effort, honest and open thinking, and some sincere feeling.

     In a sermon recorded in the book of Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7, Jesus spends a great deal of time discussing the importance of seeking out God’s will and of listening to His word.  He also emphasizes the equal importance of understanding and obeying God’s word correctly.  Jesus finishes this lesson with a warning against people who claim Jesus as their Lord, but do not obey Him as their Lord.
     In other passages of the New Testament, Jesus (and the apostles whose letters are recorded) pointed out that many man-made doctrines will be taught and practiced as God-made doctrines.  Those people who teach such are labeled as hypocrites, deceivers, and blasphemers (Matthew chapter 23; Timothy 4:1-4; Titus 1:10-16,3:9-11).  Those people who follow such teachers are obviously being deceived and being led away from eternal life.  So … how can we recognize and avoid these false doctrines made up by people?  How can we recognize the teachings that come from God?
     A man in England, famous for his ability to identify counterfeit (or fake) money, was once asked how he was able to do it and did he need to spend all his time studying all the different kinds of fake money.  He replied that he spent his time studying the real thing:  by understanding the characteristics of genuine money, he could pick out the fake money.  Likewise, if we spend our time studying God written instructions about His true religion, then we will be able to understand it and also be able to identify what is really fake or false religion.

     Our study of the Bible will be more profitable if we remember the following seven suggestions:

          1) Try to study only one book at a time.

          2) Start with the New Testament.

          3) Try to understand the motive of the author.
     For example, the styles of the four Gospel
     writers are different because they are
     addressing different groups of people.

          4) This brings up the fourth point: try to
     understand to whom the book was written.

          5) Understand what the message meant to the
     original reader.

          6) Remember that every Scripture should be
     interpreted by other Bible passages and
     not by theological theories.

          7) Realize that, with the exception of
     some prophetic passages and especially
     some prophetic books such as Revelation,
     every verse should be understood as
     literal unless there is some clear motive
     to consider it figurative. In contrast,
     language of prophetic books should be
     understood to be symbolic unless there is
     some valid reason to consider a particular
     passage as literal. This distinction is
     not as hard to make as it might seem,
     if we deal honestly with the verses that
     we are reading.

     Successful Bible study is an ongoing learning experience … a process of growing … in other words, good Bible students are both prepared and committed to changing what they know and think.  Sometimes they uncover evidence compelling them to abandon a sincere, but mistaken, viewpoint.  Sometimes they gain a new awareness of a truth they previously ignored.  Sometimes they simply reinforce a grasp on the truths they’re already handling well.  Do you see the Bible as a confusing puzzle with many jumbled unrelated pieces and several other pieces seem boring, redundant, unmeaningful … with some of the pieces apparently missing?  Are you ever surprised or frustrated with yourself about how little you actually know of what God has told us through the Bible?  Be patient and humble, and you will make progress. With time, practice, and experience you will find yourself seeing more and more how God’s written Word fits together as well-knit and well-planned as a finely woven tapestry from the hand of a master craftsman.
     As we said earlier, God has a purpose for providing us the Bible.  This purpose gives His Bible a reason and meaning … an intended aim that “lays down the rules” for the why of the what God tells in the Bible.  Therefore, we should expect each book in the Bible to fulfill some responsibility in supporting this overall aim.  Likewise, each chapter and passage in a book has a meaningful role in fulfilling the book’s purpose, and in turn the Bible’s purpose, and ultimately God’s purpose.  Find the purpose(s) of a passage and you will begin to appreciate the value of that passage.
     With any learning process (hobbies, school, job training, etc.), some of what a person learns can be described as “simple to understand,” ”basic fundamentals,” and “must be learned first to understand the rest correctly.”  The same is true for Bible study and several important Bible teachings fall into this description. This also means that some Bible teachings can be described as “difficult to understand,” “challenging and meaty,” and “advanced material not for beginners.”  In the letter to the Hebrew Christians, the writer rebuked some of his readers for still needing “
milk” when they should have been ready for “solid food” and that they needed “someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God” … they had stopped learning and had lost the value of the written Word (Hebrews 5:11-14).  He then mentions several of what he calls “the elementary principles of Christ” (Hebrews 6:1-2).  In his letters Peter also warned Christians then and today concerning “some things hard to understand,” referring in this case to Paul’s letters, “which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:11).  Clearly, some Bible Scriptures and teachings are easier to understand while some are more challenging, and we should try to learn the right way to handle what we read in all the Bible.
     In John 4:24, we find Jesus telling a Samaritan woman, “
God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”  Truth is valuable to God.  If we intend to offer acceptable worship to God, then we must value truth, too. How important is the truth to you?  How concerned are you about worshiping God with the right attitude and according to the instructions He really gave us?

     We will look more closely in other articles at valuable tools and techniques for studying the Bible.  In the meantime, what follows is some background information about the Bible that will help make your studying a little easier.
     The Bible was written by about 40 men, most of whom were Jews.  The first books were written about 1500 years before Christ.  The last ones were completed during the first century after Christ.  It was written in many places such as Palestine, Babylon, Greece, and Italy.  It was inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21).  It must be studied today because only in it do we find the will of God for our salvation.
     How is the Bible set up?  There are 39 books in the Old Testament.  The first five (Genesis - Deuteronomy) contain the early history of the world plus the law of Moses.  The next 12 (Joshua - Esther) give the history of the Jewish nation.  Then there are five books of poetry (Job - Song of Solomon or Song of Songs).  The last 17 in the Old Testament are books of prophecy.  Some are called major prophets while others are identified as minor prophets.  This has nothing to do with the importance of the writings.  It simply refers to the lengths of the books themselves.
     The New Testament starts with four accounts of the life of Jesus (Matthew - John).  Then there is the book of Acts, the history of the church at the beginning.  From Romans to Jude there are 21 epistles written to churches or various individuals.  In these letters we discover how we should live as Christians or as groups of Christians (known as churches).  At the end of the New Testament is Revelation, a beautiful prophetic book written to give courage to Christians of every era.

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