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Chapter 1 Conditions for Profitable Bible StudyWhile you will be learning profitable methods for Bible study, there is something more important than the best procedures. The secret lies in meeting certain fundamental conditions before you begin to study God’s Word. If you meet these conditions, you will get more out of the Bible, even while pursuing the poorest methods, than the one who does not meet them while he pursues the best methods. What you will need is far deeper than a new and better technique.
Obtaining Spiritual Understanding
The most essential of these conditions is that you must be born again (John 3:7). The Bible is a spiritual book. It combines spiritual concepts with spiritual words. Only a spiritual man can understand its deepest and most precious teachings. The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14). Spiritual discernment can be obtained in only one way: by being born again, Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). No mere knowledge of the human languages in which the Bible was written, however extensive and accurate it may be, will qualify one to understand and appreciate the Bible. One must comprehend the divine language in which it was written as well as the language of the Holy Spirit. A person who understands the language of the Holy Spirit but who does not understand a word of Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic will get more out of the Bible than one who knows all about ancient languages but is not born again. Many ordinary men and women who possess no knowledge of the original languages in which the Bible was written have a knowledge of the real contents of the Bible. Their understanding of its actual teaching and its depth, fullness, and beauty far surpasses that of many learned professors in theological seminaries. One of the greatest follies today is to allow an unregenerate person to teach the Bible. It would be just as unreasonable to allow someone to teach art because he had an accurate, technical knowledge of paints. An aesthetic sense is required to make a person a competent art teacher. Likewise, it requires spiritual sense to make a person a competent Bible teacher. One who has aesthetic discernment but little or no technical knowledge of paint would be a far more competent critic of works of art than one who has extensive technical knowledge of paint but no aesthetic discernment. Similarly, the person who has no technical knowledge of biblical languages but who has spiritual discernment is a far more competent critic of the Bible than the one who has a rare knowledge of Greek and Hebrew but no spiritual discernment. It is unfortunate that more emphasis is often placed on a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew in training for the ministry than is placed on the spiritual life and its consequent spiritual discernment. Unregenerate people should not be forbidden to study the Bible because the Word of God is the instrument the Holy Spirit uses in the new birth. (See 1 Peter 1:23; James 1:18.) But it should be distinctly understood that while there are teachings in the Bible that the natural man can understand, its most distinctive, characteristic teachings are beyond his grasp. Its highest beauties belong to a world in which he has no vision. The first fundamental condition for profitable Bible study, then, is You must be born again (John 3:7). You cannot study the Bible to the greatest profit if you have not been born again. Its best treasures are sealed to you.
Gaining a Spiritual Appetite
The second condition for profitable study is to have a love for the Bible. A person who eats with an appetite will get far more good out of his meal than one who eats from a sense of duty. A student of the Bible should be able to say with Job, I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12), or with Jeremiah, Your words were found, and I ate them, and Your word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart; for I am called by Your name, O LORD God of hosts (Jer. 15:16). Many come to the table God has spread in His Word with no appetite for spiritual food. Instead of getting their fill of the feast God has prepared, they grumble about everything. Spiritual indigestion results from much of the modern criticism of the Bible. But how can one acquire a love for the Bible? First of all, by being born again. Where there is life, there is likely to be appetite. A dead man never hungers. But going beyond this, the more there is of vitality, the more there is of hunger. Abounding life means abounding hunger for the Word. Study of the Word stimulates love for the Word. I remember when I had more appetite for books about the Bible than I had for the Bible itself; but with increasing study, there has come increasing love for the Book. Bearing in mind who the Author of the Book is, what its purpose is, what its power is, and what the riches of its contents are will go far toward stimulating a love and appetite for the Book.
Digging for Treasures
The third condition is a willingness to work hard. Solomon gave a graphic picture of the Bible student who receives the most profit from his study:
My son, if you receive my words, and treasure my commands within you, so that you incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding; yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God. (Prov. 2:1-5)
Seeking for silver and searching for hidden treasure mean hard work, and the one who wishes to get not only the silver but also the gold out of the Bible must make up his mind to dig. It is not glancing at the Word but studying the Word, meditating on the Word, and pondering the Word that will bring the richest yield. The reason many people get so little out of their Bible reading is simply that they are not willing to think. Intellectual laziness lies at the heart of a large percent of fruitless Bible reading. People are constantly crying for new methods of Bible study, but what many of them want is simply some method of Bible study where they can get the most without much work. If someone could tell lazy Christians some method of Bible study whereby they could use the sleepiest ten minutes of the day, just before they go to bed, for Bible study and get the most profit that God intends, that would be what they desire. But it can’t be done. We must be willing to work and work hard if we wish to dig out the treasures of infinite wisdom, knowledge, and blessing that He has stored up in His Word. A business friend once asked me in a hurried call to tell him in a word how to study his Bible. I replied, Think. The psalmist pronounced that the man who meditates day and night in the law of the LORD is blessed. (See Psalm 1:12.) The Lord commanded Joshua to meditate in it day and night and assured him that as a result of this meditation, you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success (Josh. 1:8). In this way alone can one study the Bible to the greatest profit.
One pound of beef wellchewed, digested, and assimilated will give more strength than tons of beef merely glanced at; and one verse of Scripture chewed, digested, and assimilated will give more strength than whole chapters simply skimmed. Weigh every word you read in the Bible. Look at it. Turn it over and over. The most familiar passages take on new meaning in this way. Spend fifteen minutes on each word in Psalm 23:1 or Philippians 4:19, and see if it is not so.
Finding the Treasure’s Keys
The fourth condition is a will wholly surrendered to God: If anyone wants to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine (John 7:17). A surrendered will gives that clearness of spiritual vision necessary to understand God’s Book. Many of the difficulties and obscurities of the Bible arise simply because the will of the student is not surrendered to the will of the Author of the Book. It is remarkable how clear, simple, and beautiful passages that once puzzled us become when we are brought to that place where we say to God, I surrender my will unconditionally to Yours. I have no will but Yours. Teach me Your will. A surrendered will does more than a university education to make the Bible an open book. It is simply impossible to get the most profit out of your Bible study until you surrender your will to God. You must be very definite about this. Many will say, Oh, yes, my will is surrendered to God, but it is not. They have never gone alone with God and said intelligently and definitely to Him, O God, I here and now give myself to You, for You to command me, lead me, shape me, send me, and do with me absolutely as You will. Such an act is a wonderful key to unlock the treasurehouse of God’s Word. The Bible becomes a new Book when a person surrenders to God. Doing this brought a complete transformation in my own theology, life, and ministry.
Use It or Lose It
The fifth condition is very closely related to the fourth. The student of the Bible who desires to receive the greatest profit out of his studies must be obedient to its teachings as soon as he sees them. It was good advice James gave to early Christians and to us: Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves (James 1:22). Many who consider themselves Bible students are deceiving themselves in this way today. They see what the Bible teaches, but they do not do it; soon, they lose their power to see it. Truth obeyed leads to more truth. Truth disobeyed destroys the capacity for discovering truth. There must be not only a general surrender of the will but also a specific, practical obedience to each new word of God discovered. In no place is the law more joyously certain on the one hand and more sternly inexorable on the other than in the matter of using or refusing the truth revealed in the Bible: To everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away (Matt. 25:29). Use and you get more; refuse and you lose all. Do not study the Bible for the mere gratification of intellectual curiosity but to find out how to live and how to please God. Whatever duty you find commanded in the Bible, do it at once. Whatever good you see in any Bible character, imitate it immediately. Whatever mistake you note in the actions of Bible men and women, scrutinize your own life to see if you are making the same mistake; if you find you are, correct it immediately. James compared the Bible to a mirror. (See James 1:2324.) The chief purpose of a mirror is to show you if anything is out of place about you. If you find there is, you can set it right. Use the Bible in that way. You already see that obeying the truth will solve the enigmas in the verses you do not yet understand. Disobeying the truth darkens the whole world of truth. This is the secret of much of the skepticism and error of the day. People saw the truth but did not do it, and now it is gone. I once knew a bright and promising young minister who made rapid advancement in the truth. One day, however, he said to his wife, It’s nice to believe this truth, but we do not need to speak so much about it. He began to hide his testimony. Not long after this, his wife died, and he began to drift. The Bible became a sealed book to him. His faith reeled, and he publicly renounced his belief in the fundamental truths of the Bible. He seemed to lose his grip even on the doctrine of immortality. What was the cause of it all? Truth flees when it is not lived and stood for. That man was admired by many and applauded by some, but light gave place to darkness in his soul.
Come as a Child
The sixth condition is a childlike mind. God reveals His deepest truths to babes. No time more than our own needs to take to heart the words of Jesus: I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes (Matt. 11:25). How can we be babes if God is to reveal His truth to us, and we are to understand His Word? By having a childlike spirit. A child is not full of his own wisdom. He recognizes his ignorance and is ready to be taught. He does not oppose his own notions and ideas to those of his teachers. It is in this spirit that we should come to the Bible if we are to get the most profit out of our study. Do not come to the Bible seeking confirmation for your own ideas. Come rather to find out what God’s ideas are as He has revealed them. Do not come to find confirmation for your own opinions but to be taught what God may be pleased to teach. If a person comes to the Bible just to find his own ideas taught there, he will find them. But if he comes, recognizing his own ignorance just as a little child seeks to be taught, he will find something infinitely better than his own ideas; he will find the mind of God. Thus, we see why many people cannot see things that are plainly taught in the Bible. They are so full of their own ideas that there is no room left for what the Bible actually teaches. An illustration of this is given in the lives of the apostles at one stage in their training. In Mark 9:31, we read: For He taught His disciples and said to them, ‘The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.’ Now this is as plain and definite as language can make it, but it was utterly contrary to the apostles’ ideas of what would happen to Christ. We read in the next verse: They did not understand this saying (v. 32). Is this any different than our own inability to comprehend plain statements in the Bible when they run counter to our preconceived notions? You must come to Christ like a child to be taught what to believe and do, rather than coming as a fullgrown person who already knows it all and must find some interpretations of Christ’s words that will fit into his mature and infallible philosophy. Many people are so full of unbiblical theology that it takes a lifetime to get rid of it and understand the clear teaching of the Bible. Oh, what can this verse mean? many bewildered individuals cry. It means what it clearly says. But these people are not after the meaning God has clearly put into it, but the meaning they can, by some ingenious tricks of explanation, twist to make fit into their own interpretations. Don’t come to the Bible to find out what you can make it mean but to find out what God intended it to mean. People often miss the real truth of a verse by saying, But that can be interpreted this way. Oh, yes, so it can, but is that the way God intended it to be interpreted? We all need to pray, O, God, make me like a little child. Empty me of my own notions. Teach me Your own mind. Make me ready to receive all that You have to say, no matter how contrary it is to what I have thought before. How the Bible opens up to one who approaches it in this way! How it closes to the fool who thinks he knows everything and imagines he can give points to Peter, Paul, and even to God Himself! I was once talking with a ministerial friend about what seemed to be the clear teaching of a certain passage. Yes, he replied, but that doesn’t agree with my philosophy. This man was sincere, yet he did not have the childlike spirit essential for productive Bible study. We have reached an important point in Bible study when we realize that an infinite God knows more than we, that our highest wisdom is less than the knowledge of the most ignorant babe compared with His, and that we must come to Him to be taught as children. We are not to argue with Him. But we so easily and so constantly forget this point that every time we open our Bibles, we should bow humbly before God and say, Father, I am but a child; please teach me.
Believing God’s Word
The seventh condition of studying the Bible for the greatest profit is that we study it as the Word of God. The apostle Paul, in writing to the Thessalonians, thanked God without ceasing (1 Thess. 2:13) that when they received the Word of God, they welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God (v. 13). Paul thanked God for that, and so may we thank God when we get to the place where we receive the Word of God as the Word of God. He who does not believe the Bible is the Word of God should be encouraged to study it. Once I doubted that the Bible was the Word of God, but the firm confidence that I have today that the Bible is the Word of God has come more from the study of the Book itself than from anything else. Those who doubt it are more usually those who study about the Book rather than those who dig into the actual teachings of the Book. Studying the Bible as the Word of God involves four things. First, it involves the unquestioning acceptance of its teachings when they are definitely understood, even when they may appear unreasonable or impossible. Reason demands that we submit our judgment to the statements of infinite wisdom. Nothing is more irrational than rationalism. It makes finite wisdom the test of infinite wisdom and submits the teachings of God’s omniscience to the approval of man’s judgment. Conceit says, This cannot be true, even though God says it, for it does not approve itself to my reason. O man, who are you to reply against God? (Rom. 9:20). Real human wisdom, when it finds infinite wisdom, bows before it and says, Speak what You will and I will believe. When we have once become convinced that the Bible is God’s Word, its teachings must be the end of all controversy and discussion. A Thus says the Lord will settle every question. Yet many who profess to believe that the Bible is the Word of God will shake their heads and say, Yes, but I think so and so, or Doctor , , , or Professor , , , or our church doesn’t teach it that way. There is little advantage to that sort of study. Second, studying the Bible as the Word of God involves absolute reliance on all its promises in all their length and breadth. The person who studies the Bible as the Word of God will not discount any one of its promises one iota. A student who studies the Bible as the Word of God will say, God who cannot lie has promised, and he will not try to make God a liar by trying to make one of His promises mean less than it says. (See 1 John 5:10.) The one who studies the Bible as the Word of God will be on the lookout for promises. As soon as he finds one, he should seek to discover what it means and then place his entire trust on its full meaning. This is one of the secrets of profitable Bible study. Hunt for promises and appropriate them as fast as you find them by meeting the conditions and risking all upon them. This is the way to make all the fullness of God’s blessing your own. This is the key to all the treasures of God’s grace. Happy is the one who has learned to study the Bible as God’s Word and is ready to claim for himself every new promise as it appears and to risk everything on it. Next, studying the Bible as the Word of God involves prompt obedience to its every precept. Obedience may seem hard and impossible; but God has commanded it, and you have nothing to do but to obey and leave the results with God. To get results from your Bible study, resolve that from this time on, you will claim every clear promise and obey every plain command. When the meaning of promises and commands is not yet clear, try to discern their meaning immediately. Finally, studying the Bible as the Word of God involves studying it in God’s presence. When you read a verse of Scripture, hear the voice of the living God speaking directly to you in these written words. There is new power and attractiveness in the Bible when you have learned to hear a living, present Person, God our Father, talking directly to you in these words. One of the most fascinating and inspiring statements in the Bible is Enoch walked with God (Gen. 5:24). We can have God’s glorious companionship any moment we please by simply opening His Word and letting the living, ever present God speak to us through it. With what holy awe and strange and unutterable joy one studies the Bible if he studies it in this way! It is heaven come down to earth.
The Key to Understanding
The last condition for profitable Bible study is prayerfulness. The psalmist prayed, Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law (Ps. 119:18). Everyone who desires productive study needs to offer a similar prayer each time he undertakes to study the Word. A few keys open many treasure chests of prayer. A few clues unravel many difficulties. A few microscopes disclose many beauties hidden from the eye of the ordinary observer. What new light often shines from familiar texts as you bend over them in prayer! I believe in studying the Bible many times on your knees. When you read an entire book through on your knees, and this is easily done, that book takes on a new meaning and becomes a new book. You should never open the Bible without at least lifting your heart to God in silent prayer that He will interpret it and illumine its pages by the light of His Spirit. It is a rare privilege to study any book under the immediate guidance and instruction of the author, and this is the privilege of us all in studying the Bible. When you come to a passage that is difficult to understand or interpret, instead of giving up or rushing to some learned friend or some commentary, lay that passage before God and ask Him to explain it. Plead God’s promise, If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting (James 1:5-6). Harry Morehouse, one of the most remarkable Bible scholars among unlearned men, used to say that whenever he came to a passage in the Bible that he could not understand, he would search through the Bible for another passage that threw light on it and place it before God in prayer. He said he had never found a passage that did not yield to this treatment. Some years ago, I took a tour of Switzerland with a friend, visiting some of the more famous caves. One day, the country letter carrier stopped us and asked if we would like to see a cave of rare beauty and interest away from the beaten tracks of travel. Of course, we said yes. He led us through the woods and underbrush to the mouth of the cave. As we entered, all was dark and eerie. He expounded greatly on the beauty of the cave, telling us of altars and fantastic formations, but we could see absolutely nothing. Now and then he uttered a note to warn us to be careful since near our feet lay a gulf whose bottom had never been discovered. We began to fear that we might be the first discoverers of its depth. There was nothing pleasant about the whole affair. But as soon as a magnesium taper was lit, all became different. Stalagmites rose from the floor to meet the stalactites descending from the ceiling. The great altar of nature that has been ascribed to the skill of ancient worshippers and the beautiful and fantastic formations on every hand all glistened in fairylike beauty in the brilliant light. I have often thought it was like a passage of Scripture. Others tell you of its beauty, but you cannot see it. It looks dark, intricate, forbidding, and dangerous; but when God’s own light is kindled there by prayer, how different it all becomes in an instant! You see a beauty that language cannot express. Only those who have stood there in the same light can appreciate it. He who desires to understand and love the Bible must pray much. Prayer will do more than a college education to make the Bible an open and glorious book.