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How to Study the Bible
By Robert M. West
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Preparation Readying Our Hearts for Bible Study
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Hebrews 4:12 NASB
People who want to learn how to study the Bible often ask, "Where do I begin?"
It's a good question, but the answer might be surprising. We actually begin with ourselves. We prepare our hearts to study the Bible.
Many activities in life require preparation. If we're going to exercise, we first stretch our muscles to avoid injuries. If we're going to do a job around the house, we first gather the tools and materials the job requires. If we're going on a trip, we first make sure our car is properly maintained, that we've packed everything we need, and that we have a good map.
We might be tempted to think we can just jump in without any kind of preparation, but we've all experienced what happens when we fail to prepare: problems and disappointments. Studying the Bible also requires some preparation, so we can have a profitable time studying and avoid problems that might discourage us, leading us to give up. I'm talking about personal preparation that focuses on our hearts. This is something we can easily overlook, and if not addressed, contributes to the breakdown of daily Bible study.
Frequently the Bible uses the word heart in a figurative sense, referring to the innermost portions of our being—our thoughts, emotions, and will—rather than the physical heart. It's our hearts that interest the Lord. When the prophet Samuel was preparing to anoint the future king of Israel, the Lord told him, "Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).
As we think about personal Bible study, we shouldn't view it as another intellectual exercise like the study of math, science, history, or anything else that interests us. When studying these disciplines, the mind is engaged, but not the heart. God wants us to increase our knowledge of His Word with our minds, but He also intends for the power of His Word to affect our hearts and that our lives will be changed to become more like Christ's.
Concern for a change of life was expressed by the Lord Jesus for His disciples when He prayed, "Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth" (John 17:17).
Two disciples, who didn't recognize the resurrected Lord Jesus as He walked with them on the Emmaus Road, illustrate the experience of having the heart involved in learning God's Word. As they walked with Jesus, He began to teach them things about Himself from all of the Old Testament scriptures. Later that evening, as they recalled their experience, they said to each other, "Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:32).
The hearts of these two disciples had previously been confused and discouraged as they thought the crucifixion of Jesus meant His defeat and end. When they finally recognized Him and He vanished from their presence, they considered how their hearts were warmed with spiritual revival and excitement. The spiritual heartburn they experienced was a good thing!
When our minds and our hearts are prepared and involved in Bible study, our time spent in God's Word is enjoyable and exciting.
People can have a good study Bible, have a few helpful study books, follow numerous recommended procedures, and have a quiet place to concentrate, and still not benefit spiritually from the time spent in the Bible because their hearts aren't prepared to be involved in the process. Their focus may be on only intellectual growth, not spiritual growth.
The religious leaders in Jesus' day, the scribes and Pharisees, made this error. They had a serious heart condition known as hypocrisy. Jesus described them this way: "These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me" (Matthew 15:8).
They were the kind of people who go through the motions of religious activity, more concerned about their artificial, external religious rules than about having their hearts right before God through faith and obedience to His Word. The human "heart," described as "deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked" in Jeremiah 17:9, is of major concern to God.
This chapter opened with the words of Hebrews 4:12. The context of this verse reveals that God knows everything about every one of us. As we read His Word, it functions as an X-ray machine or heart monitor, revealing to us what He sees in our hearts. Let's see ourselves as God sees us. His Word exposes our hearts so we can take corrective action (Hebrews 4:13).
Addressing issues of the heart was something that most of the scribes and Pharisees neglected to do, but Ezra, an Old Testament priest, "prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord" (Ezra 7:10). That's what we need to do as we begin Bible study.
I suggest that preparing our hearts means two things. First, we need to approach God's Word dependently. Second, we need to approach God's Word purposefully.
Depend on the Holy Spirit
Many people who begin to study the Bible will soon be saying, "I need help!" That's a good conclusion to come to. We all need help, and the person to help us is God. He gave us His Word and also assists us in understanding it. The technical term for this help is illumination. Let's look at a few New Testament verses describing God's work illuminating people's hearts.
On one occasion Jesus was teaching people about His Father's work in the lives of those who would be saved. He quoted the Old Testament when He said, "It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God'" (John 6:45). People who have come to know the Lord have experienced the illuminating work of God in their minds and hearts to understand their own lost, sinful condition and to see that Christ is the solution to their problem.
Paul spoke about illumination when he said, "But 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 Corinthians 2:14).
The natural man refers to someone who hasn't been saved and therefore doesn't have the indwelling Holy Spirit. People in this condition reject the gospel message and view it as foolishness. Subjects such as sin, guilt, forgiveness, grace, and salvation don't make sense to them and don't have personal value. They don't have interest, understanding, trust, or appreciation for Christ and His Word because they haven't had the work of God's Spirit in their hearts. Christ's Word must be understood on a spiritual level, not just an intellectual level.
Even the apostles needed divine help for understanding. Before the risen Lord Jesus returned to heaven, He assisted them in understanding the Old Testament. "And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45). Even though these men learned the scriptures throughout their lives, they failed to understand all that the Word of God predicted about Jesus. They needed His help to finally see.
John Newton, the author of the beloved hymn "Amazing Grace," wrote in the lyrics of that song, "I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see." He was referring to his own experience of not grasping biblical truth as a person who was spiritually lost. When he was saved by God's grace, his spiritual blindness was healed so he could say, "Now I see."
The only person who can make the blind see is God, so He's the One we depend on to give us understanding of His Word. The first thing a person needs, simply put, is to be saved, to be totally dependent on God for all his or her spiritual needs. (See Acts 16:30–31.)
Once we have recognized our need for help from God to understand His Word, we should regularly pray for His assistance. The psalmist realized this and expressed dependence to God: "Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law" (Psalm 119:18). This is a great prayer for us as well when we prepare our hearts to study His Word.
Depend on Mature Believers
Not only should we depend on the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit, but we should also depend on mature believers who have a strong knowledge of God's Word.
According to the apostle Paul, God gives certain people a supernatural ability to teach the Word: "Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them ... he who teaches, in teaching"(Romans 12:6–7). But teaching occurs in many settings, as Moses told the ancient Israelites: "These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up" (Deuteronomy 6:6–7 NASB). The design of God is that mature Christians teach His Word to others.
Just before He ascended into heaven, Jesus gave His apostles their final instructions, telling them, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you" (Matthew 28:19–20 NASB, emphasis added). What Jesus commanded is recorded for us in the Bible—and the Holy Spirit and gifted teachers help us to understand and apply those commands to our own lives.
By saying we must study the Bible purposefully, I mean we should be clear in our minds why we are spending part of our day studying. This is another part of personal preparation. We'd know why we were studying if we were to give a devotional message or share our thoughts about a biblical topic with a group. We'd be motivated by the specific task before us.
But what we're considering at this point are the reasons we're to be consistent in our everyday study habits. What is it that motivates us to study like the Berean Christians in Acts 17:11, who "searched the Scriptures daily"?
The best answers come straight from the Bible. The following sections describe what God would have us keep in mind so we'll be motivated to be faithful in our study. Call these the Top Ten Reasons for Personal Bible Study.
1. To settle the issue of our own salvation
Paul reminded Timothy about Timothy's own experience: "From childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15). This is the primary issue that needs to be settled in everyone's life.
God uses His Word as a means to save sinners. As we think about our conversion, we may be able to identify Bible verses that God used in our lives to save us—or at least a believer's life-giving words that were based on scripture. God also wants us to have what the hymn writer Fanny Crosby called "blessed assurance." Many Christians experience doubts about their own conversion, and through learning those portions of scripture that address this subject, we can have a deepening confidence about our own salvation.
When people want to start reading the Bible, a good place to begin is the Gospel of John in the New Testament, because this book was specifically written so people might read about Christ, believe in Him, and receive the gift of eternal life from Him. (See John 20:30–31.) This book of the Bible was written with the purpose of helping those who read it find salvation in Christ.
2. To grow spiritually
New Christians are sometimes described as babes in Christ, and of course, all babies need to grow. Peter gave this instruction to Christians in the early church: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18).
He also gave a direct exhortation that they should have the same kind of desire for the basic truths of God's Word that a newborn baby has for milk. "As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby" (1 Peter 2:2). This is a picture representing intense hunger for God's Word so that we can grow in our understanding and spiritual strength. The Bible repeatedly refers to itself as food for the soul. Just as our bodies need food to survive, our souls need the spiritual food of the Bible.
In Ephesians 4, Paul expressed the same concern as Peter for the growth of believers. He didn't want them to be tossed about and carried away with every wind of doctrine; he wanted them to be steady and strong. When we neglect to develop our understanding of truth, we can be more easily influenced by the error of false teachers. Spiritual growth through studying the Bible protects us from bad spiritual influence.
3. To receive personal blessing and encouragement
Paul wrote, "For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope" (Romans 15:4). As believers, we often experience discouragement in our Christian walk. A common cause of this discouragement is conflict between believers, which Paul addresses in Romans 15. Difficulties between Christians, which create a lack of unity, can be discouraging. As we all eventually learn, there's no lack of tension and trouble in local churches. But as we study the Bible, we see Christ's example. How He interacted with people is the pattern we're to follow for living and for treating others.
When we study the Bible, we'll also read numerous promises God made to give believers hope, and stories about how God providentially worked in the lives of people. Meditating on all these passages of scripture encourages us to persevere in our own Christian life with comfort and hope.
Discouragement can also come from conviction about our sins as we're brought face to-face with God's holy standards in the Bible. When we're honest about our lives, we have to admit we fall short of His glory. It's frustrating to struggle with the same sins over and over, not being able to break bad habits in our lives. But as we continue to read God's Word, we'll also discover the comfort and hope available to us through God's mercy, grace, and forgiveness in Christ.
We can learn about His power to transform our lives by the power of His Word. Reading about how He pardoned and delivered others—and then us—gives us hope. The God of patience and comfort wants us to be encouraged. Since the Bible was written for our education, the more we learn, the more we can be encouraged.
4. To receive personal guidance
When faced with many of life's decisions, we often wonder, What should I do now? Learning the Bible can be helpful in answering this question. "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Psalm 119:105). The psalmist pictured the effect of learning God's Word as having a lamp for life that lights the way before us so we can see where we're going.
As the nation of Israel journeyed in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt, they were led by a pillar of fire at night. That was how God worked for that group of people at that time. What God has provided for us in our journey is His written Word, which gives us the light of knowledge and wisdom.
Many times the Bible addresses our specific situation, but when it doesn't, there are principles we can apply to our lives so we have confidence that we're being led by God's Word.
In Psalm 119, the psalmist refers to his daily experience of living in a world filled with spiritual and moral darkness, a world that calls good evil and evil good. As believers concerned with pleasing God and wanting to do His will, we try to make decisions that honor Him, but the influence of a dark world often makes this difficult. Through studying the Bible we learn what the will of God is and experience His direction.
As we seek God's guidance, he'll lead us by His Spirit (Romans 8:14), which always agrees with what God has revealed to us in His Word. His Spirit's leading never contradicts what He's written. If our personal decisions contradict what has been written in the Bible, then we can be sure we aren't being led by God.
5. To defend ourselves against the devil
Soon after we become Christians, we find out that the Christian life involves spiritual warfare. In Ephesians 6, Paul instructs believers with these words, "Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil" (verse 11). The wiles of the devil are the methods he uses against people, trying to keep them from doing the will of God.
Excerpted from How to Study the Bible by Robert M. West. Copyright © 2007 Barbour Publishing, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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