Keys to Effective Bible Study
by Philip Neal
The diligent study of the Scriptures is a vital part of the Christian’s life. Indeed, having one’s mind in the Word of God is one of the key defenses Christians have in this troublesome world. Notice what Paul has to say about the profound value of studying the Scriptures: “And that from a child you have known the holy writings, which are able to make you wise unto salvation through faith, which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is profitable for doctrine, for conviction, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; so that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work” (II Tim. 3:15-17).
Yet many Christians do not realize that their study of the Scriptures is often hampered by failing to follow basic “rules” of Bible study. To be sure, there are definite spiritual keys to understanding the Bible. The primary key is continually being in a loving, faithful, and obedient relationship with God. Do you want understanding? In the Psalms we find that those who keep the commandments of God will be given understanding: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do His commandments (Psa. 111:8). This is the foundation of understanding the Word of God.
A second key is to realize that no biblical subject is covered in just one area of the Bible. Rather, relevant passages will be found scattered throughout the Bible, and we must pull them all together to get a clear picture. This is what the prophet Isaiah meant when he wrote: “Whom shall He teach knowledge? And whom shall He make to understand doctrine? Those weaned from the milk and drawn from the breasts [that is, fully grounded in the basics of the Word of God]. For precept must be upon precept … line upon line … here a little, there a little” (Isa. 28:9-10). That is exactly how we need to study any scriptural question—look at all relevant passages on any given subject. The New Testament confirms this approach. Paul instructed Timothy: “Diligently study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman [in the Word of God] who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing [precept upon precept, and line upon line] the word of the truth” (II Tim. 2:15).
We must also seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Paul taught that spiritual truths can only be discerned and understood through the Spirit of God: “But God has revealed them to us by His Spirit, for the Spirit searches all things—even the deep things of God. For who among men understands the things of man except by the spirit of man which is in him? In the same way also, the things of God no one understands except by the Spirit of God. Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is of God, so that we might know the things graciously given to us by God; which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Holy Spirit in order to communicate spiritual things by spiritual means. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:10-14).
The following “Seven Rules for Bible Study” outline how to “rightly divide” the Word of God.
1) With any given subject, begin with Scriptures that are easy to understand. Put them first, not the complex or difficult passages. Then, once the easy passages are clearly understood, see how the more difficult passages might fit it.
2) Do not allow personal assumptions or preconceived ideas to influence your conclusions. Rather, let the Bible interpret and prove the Bible. Don’t look for what you want to prove, look for what the Bible actually says. Harboring preconceived ideas or “having an axe to grind” will only cause one to misapply the Scriptures.
3) Context, context, context. Consider the verses before and after the passage in question—and the chapters before and after. Does your understanding of a particular verse harmonize with the greater context of the rest of the Bible? Also consider the historical context in which a biblical book was written.
4) The best way to understand a passage (or a particular word in a passage) is to see how several different translations render the verse. Never depend on just one translation—use several and compare.
5) When necessary, look up the meaning of the original Hebrew or Greek words used in a passage. However, one should never base doctrine solely on commentaries or other such “Bible helps.”
6) Ask these key questions: What does the passage actually say? What does the passage not say? Who was the book written to? Who wrote it? Who said it?
7) Do not form conclusions based on partial facts, insufficient information, or the opinions and speculations of others. Moreover, doctrine must never be based on church tradition—regardless of how authoritative it may appear. Scripture alone must be your standard and guide.
For more information on Bible study and other subjects pertaining to Christian growth, please visit www.churchathome.org. Philip Neal