Word Studies in the Bible

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Generally it’s better to read a book of the Bible from start to finish, in one or consecutive sittings. You get the whole context then, the way the passage fits within the rest of the book, etc., and you get it the way it was originally intended to be read. But sometimes a topical or word or phrase study can be beneficial, too, either as a break from just reading, or because you have found something you want to study out a bit further.

We have to be careful with word or topical studies that we don’t string together a bunch of unrelated verses out of context. But if we take context into account, sometimes these studies can be real eye-openers. I’ll share a few of my own later.

The place to begin is a concordance. You probably have a small concordance in the back of your Bible, and that can be a good starting place. But you’re probably going to want to invest in a Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, or, if you have a computer, learn to work with some online programs. There are several Bible computer programs you could buy, but for just a basic study like this, free online resources like BibleGateway.com, BibleStudyTools.com, or blueletterbible.org are all fine.

Say you wanted to look up verses about God’s love. You look up “love” in the concordance, and there are tons of verses with that word in it. You go through them and find the ones that deal with God’s love rather than the love of people for each other, and either write them out, or, with a computer you can just “copy and paste” them into your word processing program. As you do this, you’ll find characteristics of God’s love (it is eternal, merciful, etc.), and you might want to organize the verses into categories. Even doing this you won’t find all the verses about God’s love, because some verses that may talk about it may not have the word “love” in the verse, and so won’t show up in that category in the concordance. So if you want to be really thorough, as you study those verses you can look up the cross references or look up the verses just before and after the ones you find in the concordance (that is a good practice anyway to make sure you are taking the verses in context).

If you wanted to take it a step further, you could look up the original Greek or Hebrew words. The Strong’s Concordance will have a number assigned to each word, and you can then look up words by that number. I believe Strong’s numbers are only available for the KJV and NIV. In BibleStudyTools.com, for instance, if you look up John 3:16, then you can click on the “Settings” icon and click on the Strong’s numbers. All the words with a Strong’s number will turn blue, and you can click on any of them to see the definition. If you click on “loved,” you’d be taken to a page which shows you the Greek word there is “agapao,” and you’ll also see the word origin, part of speech, definition, other places in the Bible where this word is used, and other ways the word is translated. You can even listen to what the pronunciation sounds like.

Once in a Child Care class in college, we had to do a study on what the Bible says about child discipline. For that kind of a study, you might go to verses you are already familiar with first, then look up the cross references listed beside them, then look up pertinent words in the concordance, like “rod,” “discipline,” “train,”, “child,” “son,” etc. Then you might go from the actual verses telling about child discipline to examples in Scripture of parents disciplining their children in good or bad ways or examples of how God disciplines us.

When you go back to your regular reading, you’ll likely find other verses that would fit in to your study, and your study will likely heighten what you get out of that passage as you read it again.

I’ve done studies on particular problem areas I’ve wrestled with, like anger, pride, anxiety, gluttony, that have been very helpful.  One pitfall is that it be can be very easy to look these verses up and get them all neatly categorized and organized….and then file them away without really going back to read and study them to see what they teach. But they can be a handy and helpful study guide.

Once I did a study on the words “in Christ” or “in Him.” I had noticed a few verses that detailed some things that we have in Christ and wanted to study it out further. It was a very rich study! Here are just a few of those verses:

Romans 3:24   Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

 Romans 8:1  There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

Romans 8:38– 98   For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 1 Corinthians 1:30   But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.

 1 Corinthians 15:22   For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

 2 Corinthians 2:14   Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place.

John 1:4   In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

 Colossians 2:10   And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power.

Another time, to try to fight against my desire for my own way so much of the time, I did a study looking up verses like “own way,” “own understanding,” “own thoughts,” “own sight,” “own eyes,” etc. I ended up with four pages of very convicting notes! Here are just a few:

Isaiah 53:6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Proverbs 14:14a The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways

Proverbs 21:2 Every way of a man is right in his own eyes: but the LORD pondereth the hearts.

Romans 10:3  For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.

Proverbs 1:31 Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices.

Proverbs  3:5 Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

Proverbs  3:7 Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil.

Philippians 3:9   And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.

One of the most impactful word studies I did was on the phrase “God is able.” I saw a few verses with that phrase in the March 8 evening reading of Daily Light on the Daily Path, and decided to look up more.  Some of those:

II Chronicles 25:9: And Amaziah said to the man of God, But what shall we do for the hundred talents which I have given to the army of Israel? And the man of God answered, The LORD is able to give thee much more than this. (See II Chronicles 25:1-9 for the bigger picture.)

Daniel 3:17: If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.

Daniel 4:37: Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to abase.

Matthew 10:28: And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Acts 20:32: And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.

Romans 4:21: And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.

Romans 14:4: Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.

2 Corinthians 9:8: And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work…

Ephesians 3:20-21: Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

Philippians 3:21: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.

2 Timothy 1:12: For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.

Hebrews 2:18: For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted.

Hebrews 7:25: Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.

James 4:12: There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?

Jude 1:24: Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy….

Matthew 9: 28, 29: Believe ye that I am able to do this? . . . Yea Lord. . . . According to your faith be it unto you.

What a great boost to faith, and how much we have to praise our God for!

Have you ever done a word or topical study in the Bible that impacted you? If not, I hope you’ll give a word or topical study a try!

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Glimpses, Soul Survival)

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Book Review: Taking God At His Word

Taking God at His WordTaking God At His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me by Kevin DeYoung discusses…well, exactly what the subtitle says it does, “unpacking what the Bible says about the Bible.”

He begins with Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, an acrostic “love song” about God’s Word in language that would seem excessively emotional by many today, even many who read and love the Bible. He wants Psalm 119 to be the goal, the application, that the rest of the book leads to rather than a “ho hum” or skeptical reaction.

I want to convince you (and make sure I’m convinced myself) that the Bible makes no mistakes, can be understood, cannot be overturned, and is the most important word in your life, the most relevant thing you can read each day.

He then goes on to discuss what we should believe about the Word of God – it says what is true, it demands what is right, it provides what is good – and what we should feel about the Word of God – delight in it, desire it, depend on it. He then discusses what we should do with the Word of God (with supporting points for each section).

He discusses the “feeling as though God speaking to us through the Scriptures is an inferior, less exciting, less edifying means of communication. We can’t help but conclude, ‘Yes, the Bible is important, but oh, what a treasure it would be if I could experience God really speaking to me! If only I could hear from the sure and infallible voice of God'” and assures us that that’s exactly what we do have in the Bible.

He devotes a chapter each to God’s Word being enough, clear, final, and necessary, concluding with “Christ’s Unbreakable Bible,” which shows what Jesus believed about and how He responded to the OT Scriptures, and “Stick With the Scriptures.”

A few more quotes:

The authority of God’s Word resides in the written text–the words, the sentences, the paragraphs–of Scripture, not merely in our existential experience of the truth in our hearts.

The goal of revelation is not information only, but affection, worship, and obedience. Christ in us will be realized only as we drink deeply of the Bible, which is God’s word outside of us.

To deny, disregard, edit, alter, reject, or rule out anything in God’s Word is to commit the sin of unbelief.

Just because God cannot be known exhaustively, that does not mean he cannot be known at all.

We should not abandon faith in anything God has taught us merely because we cannot solve all the problems which it raises. Our own intellectual competence is not the test and measure of divine truth. It is not for us to stop believing because we lack understanding, but to believe in order that we may understand (This is a quote from J. I. Packer’s book “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God).

There is an objective standard of truth which supersedes private impressions or experience.

But, someone may ask, doesn’t Jesus sometimes argue that the Old Testament was wrong? Doesn’t he actually correct the Scriptures on a few occasions? It may look that way, but upon closer inspection we see that Christ never corrects a verse of Scripture when rightly interpreted and applied. For example, the claim is made that Jesus relaxed the requirements of the Sabbath, thus violating his own principle and tweaking Scripture to be less rigid. But actually Jesus appealed to Scripture—to the story of David and his men eating the bread of the Presence—to show that the Pharisees were imposing standards which violated the teaching of Scripture (Mark 2: 23–28)…Jesus is not correcting Scripture itself, but the misapplication of it.

Scripture doesn’t tell us everything we may want to know about everything. But it tells us everything we need to know about the most important things.

The author covers a lot of ground in a short book (146 pages) in a way that is thorough, engaging, clear, learned but not full of academese, easily accessible, I believe, for non-Christians, new Christians, or experienced Christians. I enjoy Keven’s writing, and though in other posts and books of his I may not agree with every little point, I don’t recall anything I objected to in this book. Highly recommended.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carole’s Books You Loved, Literary Musing Monday)

 

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Why Study Doctrine?

Doctrine can seem like a cold, dry concept, something stuffy theologians fuss over when they should be trying to reach others. We’re more excited by a group study on relationships or parenting or womanhood or just about anything rather than a doctrinal study. We don’t usually approach our time in the Bible or church rubbing our hands eagerly anticipating what doctrine we’ll learn about today. We’re usually looking for help, encouragement, affirmation. We want to feel something. But feelings don’t last. If I get a warm fuzzy spiritual feeling in my devotions, that can dissipate in seconds when someone crosses me or something goes wrong. Winsome sermons and books may inspire me for a short while, but unless there is meat to them, that inspiration won’t last.

But doctrine is vital. You can hardly read a NT epistle without coming across a mention of doctrine and warning against false doctrine. If we think of sound doctrine as a manifestation of God’s truth and character, we can in turn worship Him by knowing and sharing the doctrines of His Word.

A.W. Tozer once wrote that “there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.”

So what are some advantages to studying right doctrine in the Bible?

Doctrine leads us to true worship. When we don’t worship God for Who He truly is, then we are worshipping a god of our own making, and that is idolatry. Now, of course, all of us are imperfect in our knowledge of Him and are, or should be, ever growing in Him, and He’ll correct our understanding along the way. But that is different from not knowing Him for Who He is due to neglect or misapplication of the Word.

Doctrine increases our intimacy with God. We can’t know Him aright apart from what He has revealed of Himself in His Word. As we learn more of Him, we love Him and worship Him more, and what seemed like “dry doctrine” then does become something that warms and thrills our hearts as the Holy Spirit brings that truth to mind.

Doctrine protects against error and therefore the wrong path. For example, years ago when cult leader David Koresh was in the news, I watched an interview with someone from his compound. I was shocked to hear her say that she was impressed that he knew his Bible so well. Nearly everything he brought from the Bible, he twisted. Knowing doctrine would have kept this person and others from being deceived by him and others like him.

Doctrine bolsters our faith and confidence in God.  Recently I was troubled by a question I had no answer for that cast doubts on God’s character. I still don’t have an answer for it, but I rested on the previously studied truth that He is good, righteous, kind, and merciful.

Doctrine meets our deepest needs at the most basic level. If I am feeling lonely, what most helps except the truth that God is present everywhere, even with me? If I am afraid, what helps most but meditating on God’s power? When a trial comes and people feel forsaken, what most comforts but the precious truth that God will never forsake us? If I am feeling ashamed, sinful, and unworthy, my only help is turning to the only One who can wash away my sin and remind me that I am in Him and beloved by Him.

Doctrine is stabilizing. “So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14, ESV). I’ve known women and read women who do just this, float around with whatever is popular with little discernment. 2 Timothy speaks of “silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” who are “lead captive” by a whole host of wrongdoers in the “perilous last days” (2 Timothy 3:1-7, KJV). By contrast, Titus 2 exhorts us to “speak thou the things which become sound doctrine” (v. 1, KJV).

Doctrine determines deeds. Our beliefs affect our behavior. When a lie seems the only way out of a tough situation, what keeps us from it but the knowledge that it will displease a God whose essence is truth? Even the Titus 2 admonition to older men and women is couched in the context of sound doctrine.

Doctrine honors God. He is the one who determined what sound doctrine us. If we love Him we should want to know what He says and live accordingly. It’s so important to Him, He inspired John to write, “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (1 John 1:10, ESV).

Doctrine is not an end in itself. If it is, then it does become dry and stale. The point of doctrine isn’t to line up our beliefs in neat, orderly systems and leave them there. The point is to know God better, serve Him in the ways He desires, and minister His truth to others.

People concerned about right doctrine can seem pesky and picky, and, true, it’s too easy to be that way. We shouldn’t be nitpicky just to be so. But we should “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB), and as kindly and gently as possible bring His truth to bear in our conversations and interactions. We have to remember to let our speech be always “with grace” (Col. 4:6) and to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). We don’t need to “pounce” on every comment or reference another person might make, but graciously seek what the Lord might have us say. We also have to distinguish between clear doctrine and those areas where good people can differ or personal preferences.

II Corinthians 3:18: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (KJV). We “behold Him” through His Word. And, the more we behold Him, the more we are changed into His likeness.

Learning doctrine doesn’t necessarily mean digging up systematic theology books, though some might like to do so. In our everyday reading and Bible study, it means looking for the truth about God when we read. The Bible is so much more than moralistic stories (“Be like Joseph and Daniel; don’t be like Jonah and Judas”). Look at what God is doing in the passage, what we see of His character and wisdom in what He is doing.

So, don’t be dismayed by that word “doctrine.” II Timothy 4: 3-4 says, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” That is a warning to us not to turn away from sound doctrine, but also possibly an admission that sound doctrine needs to be “endured.” Learning doctrine may not always feel warm and fuzzy, but the Holy Spirit will use it in our lives in blessed ways.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Wise Woman, Tell His Story, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Faith on Fire)

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Book Review: How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth

In How to Read the BibleHow to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart attempt to help the reader understand and interpret the Bible with particular consideration of the genre of each book. They explain that the “Its” of the title is deliberate, rather than “It Is,” saying, “‘Its’ is a deliberate wordplay that works only when it appears without the apostrophe; and in the end our own emphasis lies with this possessive. Scripture is God’s Word, and we want people to read it because of its great value to them. And if they do it ‘for all it’s worth,’ hopefully they will also find its worth.”

The first chapter covers general principles for reading and understanding the Bible: exegesis, “the careful, systematic study of Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning,” which involves learning “to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text,” questions of context (historical and literary) and content; interpretation, and hermeneutics, learning “to hear that same meaning in the variety of new or different contexts of our own day.” They insist, several times over, that we must understand what the text meant to the original readers before attempting to apply it to ourselves.

The concern of the scholar is primarily with what the text meant; the concern of the layperson is usually with what it means. The believing scholar insists that we must have both. Reading the Bible with an eye only to its meaning for us can lead to a great deal of nonsense as well as to every imaginable kind of error—because it lacks controls. Fortunately, most believers are blessed with at least a measure of that most important of all hermeneutical skills—common sense.

Whether one likes it or not, every reader is at the same time an interpreter. That is, most of us assume as we read that we also understand what we read. We also tend to think that our understanding is the same thing as the Holy Spirit’s or human author’s intent. However, we invariably bring to the text all that we are, with all of our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and ideas. Sometimes what we bring to the text, unintentionally to be sure, leads us astray, or else causes us to read all kinds of foreign ideas into the text.

Let it be said at the outset—and repeated throughout—that the aim of good interpretation is not uniqueness; one is not trying to discover what no one else has ever seen before. Interpretation that aims at, or thrives on, uniqueness can usually be attributed to pride (an attempt to “outclever” the rest of the world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full of deeply buried truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), or vested interests (the need to support a theological bias, especially in dealing with texts that seem to go against that bias). Unique interpretations are usually wrong. This is not to say that the correct understanding of a text may not often seem unique to someone who hears it for the first time. But it is to say that uniqueness is not the aim of our task. The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the “plain meaning of the text.”

Because the Bible is God’s Word, it has eternal relevance; it speaks to all humankind, in every age and in every culture.

The second chapter deals with the different translations of the Bible. You may not agree with the one they feel is best (I later learned one of them was on the translation committee for it), but this chapter will help you appreciate the difficulties involved in translating and the reasons there are so many translations, but will also reassure you that we have a few today that are especially accurate and trustworthy. There are a number of considerations, but the main differences in translations are those which use formal equivalence, “the attempt to keep as close to the ‘form’ of the Hebrew or Greek, both words and grammar, as can be conveniently put into understandable English”; functional equivalence, “the attempt to keep the meaning of the Hebrew or Greek but to put their words and idioms into what would be the normal way of saying the same thing in English” at the time of the translation, and free translation (or paraphrase), which is more concerned about translating the ideas rather than the “exact words of the original.”

The problem with a “free” translation, on the other hand, especially for study purposes, is that the translator updates the original author too much…On the one hand, these renditions often have especially fresh and vivid ways of expressing some old truths and have thus each served to stimulate contemporary Christians to take a fresh look at their Bibles. On the other hand, such a “translation” often comes very close to being a commentary, but without other options made available to the reader. Therefore, as stimulating as these can sometimes be, they are never intended to be a person’s only Bible; and the reader needs constantly to check particularly eye-catching moments against a true translation or a commentary to make sure that not too much freedom has been taken.

The rest of the book’s chapters discuss the different genres of literature in the Bible: epistles, narratives, Acts, the gospels, parables, the law, the prophets, the psalms, wisdom literature (Job, Proverbs, Song of Solomon), and Revelation.  They apply the principles they discussed in Chapter 1 to each and also discuss their forms and the particular difficulties or concerns in reading and interpreting each one. For instance, concerning the epistles, the authors  “offer the following guidelines, therefore, for distinguishing between items that are culturally relative on the one hand and those that transcend their original setting on the other hand and are thus normative for all Christians of all times.” Of the OT narratives, they say:

Our concern in this chapter is to guide you toward a good understanding of how Hebrew narrative “works,” so that you may read your Bibles more knowledgeably and with greater appreciation for God’s story. Unfortunately, failure to understand both the reason for and the character of Hebrew narrative has caused many Christians in the past to read the Old Testament story very poorly. If you are a Christian, the Old Testament is your spiritual history. The promises and calling of God to Israel are your historical promises and calling. Yet, in our experience, people force incorrect interpretations and applications on narrative portions of the Bible as much as or more than they do on any other parts. The intended value and meaning are replaced with ideas read into rather than out of the text.

Old Testament narratives are not allegories or stories filled with hidden meanings…[and] are not intended to teach moral lessons. The purpose of the various individual narratives is to tell what God did in the history of Israel…

However, even though [they] do not teach directly, they often illustrate what is taught explicitly and categorically everywhere.

One crucial thing to keep in mind as you read any Hebrew narrative is the presence of God in the narrative. In any biblical narrative, God is the ultimate character, the supreme hero of the story.

Even though the chapters on the different genres make up the bulk of the book and I have multitudes of places marked in them, for the sake of space and time I’ll stop there.

They have an appendix for “The Evaluation and Use of Commentaries” and their recommendations for good ones.

Overall, though I would not agree with every little point, I found the book very helpful. Though there is value in reading it through as a whole, I think there would be more value in reading the chapter on a particular genre just before reading that genre, and I may try to do that, or at least refresh myself on some of the applicable points, on starting a new genre in my own reading.

The authors are scholars who try very hard to make their points readable and understandable to the average layperson, and they mostly succeed. I don’t know if this is a book I would give to a brand new Christian right off the bat, though. It might be overwhelming, like trying to get a sip from a fire hydrant. But maybe not. Maybe it would help people get off on the right foot.

One frustration was that the authors often referred to what they called “How to 2” for further reading or for information they evidently didn’t want to reprint here. Since this is a third edition of the book, I thought they were referencing the second edition, and wondered why they didn’t just include that information here. But as I reread the first part, “How to 2” is referring to a different book of theirs, How to Read the Bible Book by Book.

I got this book on a Kindle sale because I had seen it referred to often, and it happened to be the third edition, which apparently is no longer available in the Kindle format. There is now a fourth edition, though, available both for print and ebook form.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Principles For Interpreting the Bible

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Have you ever wondered why two people can take the same Bible passage and come up with different meanings for it? Have you ever heard anyone say, “Oh, you can make the Bible say anything you want it to say,” especially when you’re trying to bring spiritual truth to bear on a situation? It’s true that people wrest Scripture to make is say something it wasn’t meant to say. Whole false religions have been created by doing just that. How can we guard against doing that ourselves? By applying good principles of interpretation, called hermeneutics.

 “Biblical hermeneutics is all about finding the correct interpretation of the inspired text. The purpose of biblical hermeneutics is to protect us from misapplying Scripture or allowing bias to color our understanding of truth.” (http://www.gotquestions.org/Biblical-hermeneutics.html).

Some of you might think something like, “I will never be a preacher; I’m not even a teacher—so what does it matter how I interpret Scripture?”

It matters, first of all, because we’re instructed to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (II Timothy 2:15). Even though that verse was written as instruction to a preacher, it’s also God’s inspired Word to us. Really, is there anyone who shouldn’t rightly divide the Word or study it aright? We want to understand what God said to us and not be led stray by misunderstanding His Word.

It matters, secondly, because each of us has a sphere of influence. Whether we ever stand in front of a classroom or audience or not, we come across people in our daily walk, we have relatives, friends, neighbors. What we read and how we read Scripture forms our understanding of spiritual matters (and our spiritual understanding of practical matters) and will influence our views, which in turn will affect our conversations and character and witness and influence.

Besides paying attention to the words themselves and how they are put together grammatically, like you would do with any reading, here are a few principles for rightly interpreting Scripture:

  • Pray. In Psalm 119:18, the psalmist prayed, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” Several times he asked for God to give him understanding or teach him. In How to Master the English Bible, James Gray said, “The most important rule is the last. Read it prayerfully. Let not the triteness of the observation belittle it, or all is lost. The point is insisted on because, since the Bible is a supernatural book, it can be studied or mastered only by supernatural aid. … Who is so well able to illuminate the pages of a given book as the author who composed it?” (I don’t know anything about the author or book than this, but thought the last two lines especially good.
  • Take the passage literally unless it’s obviously not meant to be literal. Someone once said about understanding the Bible, “When common sense makes good sense, seek no other sense.” There are some who “spiritualize” much of the OT, saying that the creation account, among other things, is just a myth and there was no real historical Adam. But the Bible presents creation and OT history as literal events in the lives of real, literal people. In Genesis 1, there is no reason to interpret the days of creation as anything other than 24-hour days. But when Jesus speaks of eating His flesh and drinking His blood, we know He is speaking figuratively, partly because of the reaction of the disciples—or lack of reaction they would have had if they thought he was speaking literally.
  • Context, context, context. Taking a verse or passage out of context is one of the biggest violators of its meaning. Just one example: You can find nice plaques or Pinterest quotes that take Exodus 14:13-14 (“And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shew to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever. The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace”) and condense it down to a pithy saying like, “Be still! Your God will fight for you.” But in the very next verse, God says, “Wherefore criest thou unto me?” And then He tells them what to do. Later, though there were times God supernaturally gave Israel the victory, most of the time they had to take up swords, spears, and shields, and fight. They still couldn’t win unless they were depending on Him rather than their own strength, but they trusted God to work through them.

Sometimes even good people will defend a stand or draw a good principle from a passage that isn’t teaching that principle. If the person you’re speaking with then does go back to look up the passage mentioned, your whole position is weakened if the context doesn’t support it. If the principle arises from the context, however, it is all the stronger and more enriching.

  • Don’t imprint your thoughts onto the text, but let the text reveal its meaning. A former pastor used to say that when he first started preaching, as he studied the passage he was going to preach on, he would ask himself, “What can I say about this passage?” After some time he realized that was the wrong question. The right one was, “What does this passage say?” For example, for years I heard that the people’s surprise at Peter’s release at the prayer meeting in Acts 12 was evidence that they weren’t praying in faith. But Dr. Layton Talbert, in his book Not By Chance: Learning to Trust a Sovereign God, brings up a different viewpoint. We don’t know that they were praying for Peter’s deliverance from prison. He points out that the text doesn’t say. James was killed by Herod earlier in the chapter: since he was not delivered they may not have expected Peter to be, either. “The only precedent we have for the church’s prayer under similar circumstances is in Acts 4:23-30. There, in the face of recent imprisonment, persecution, and renewed threats, the church made only one request. And it wasn’t for deliverance from prison or persecution; it was for boldness in the face of both (4:29)” (p. 203).
  • Compare Scripture with Scripture. The Bible is the best commentary on itself. One of the most important reasons for reading it through is to keep balanced and to keep the “big picture” in mind. A lot of theological error comes from emphasizing one part of a truth and neglecting or deemphasizing of the rest of it. Sometimes seemingly contradictory passages balance one another out or present different sides of the same truth. For instance, Proverbs 26:4-5 says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” Those sound like two different instructions, but there is a time to answer and a time it would be unwise to answer, and we need God’s wisdom to discern when and how.
  • Consider the genre. Though all the Bible is inspired and true, we would read Deuteronomy, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Romans, and Revelation all a bit differently, taking into account the different kinds of literature each is as we seek to understand them.
  • Consider the historical setting or culture of the passage. Understand that OT Israel was under a theocracy and was given specific promises (like the promise of a particular piece of land) and were under certain restrictions that New Testament believers are not (Acts 15:1-31). Even though some situations discussed in the Bible, even in the NT, are not ones we have to deal with today (like eating meat offered to idols), it’s still important to read them and discern the principles involved.
  • Note the difference in passages of direct instruction and passages of example. I once heard a message that used Abraham’s seeking out a bride for his Isaac as a springboard for telling parents how to find spouses for their children. While there are good principles to glean (like seeking a godly spouse, praying, seeking God’s guidance, etc.), it doesn’t mean that since Abraham found a wife for Isaac, parents today need to find spouses for their children. That was the culture then (see #7), but nowhere in the Bible are parents instructed to find spouses for their children in this way.
  • Note what is said to whom, determine what it meant then, and then determine how it applies to us today. For instance, as a younger Christian I wrestled with whether what Jesus said to the “rich young ruler” in Matthew 19:16-26 about selling his possessions and giving to the poor was something every Christian should do. But then I realized no on else wads told to do that. Though the Bible has a lot of instruction about our possessions (“compare Scripture with Scripture”), that particular admonition was to convict that particular man about his core problem.
  • Don’t “surface” read. Take time to read carefully and meditate on the passage. Biblical meditation isn’t an emptying of your mind, but rather thinking over and over a passage and “chewing” on it.

There is much more that could be said. In fact, every time I come back to this post I think of something else to add. Whole books have been written about this, so I can’t possibly cover every aspect in one blog post. But this gives us plenty to ponder.

Even with these principles in mind, sometimes good people can differ in their interpretations. There are some mysteries that we won’t be able to resolve until we get to heaven. We need to pray, study it out for ourselves, and consult commentaries of those who have had more time and tools to study. Where the Bible speaks clearly, we need to stand firm. But in those areas that are less clear but aren’t a matter of heresy, we need to give grace to those who might not see it exactly like we do.

I’ve wondered through the years why God did not spell everything out so there could be no mistaking the meaning or application of it. Perhaps one reason is to test our own hearts, to encourage our study, our dependence on Him, and grace toward each other.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Mondays, Literary Musing Mondays, Works For Me Wednesday, Woman Word Filled Wednesday, Thought-Provoking Thursday)

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Help for Changing Thought Patterns

Have you ever found yourself stuck in thought patterns? Fear, worry, and anxiety can easily set up camp in our minds, but so also can selfishness, greed, hatred, discontent, covetousness, jealousy, lust, and others. Many times we don’t even realize just how entangled our thoughts have become; sometimes we’ve just gotten so used to them that we have forgotten any other way.

Some years ago I shared reasons to read the Bible. One reason among the many is that we’re told in Romans 12:2 to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind.” According to BibleStudyTools.com, the Greek word for “renew” there means, “renovation, complete change for the better.” God changes us when we are saved but it takes the rest of our lives, continually spending time with Him in His Word, to “renovate” our thinking and make it more in line with His.

Part of that transformation comes through regular time in the Bible personally and with other believers in church. In a blog post titled “‘You Have Cancer’: When Theology Meets Your Fears,” Tina Walker wrote:

Soon I discovered that cancer was not the enemy – my flesh and Satan were. I wasn’t fighting breast cancer so much as I was fighting myself. And, although I wouldn’t have articulated it this way at the time, my theology was going to determine the outcome.

By theology, I mean the type of practical theology that doesn’t always take the form of a chapter and verse memorized just for the time of need. I’m referring to the accumulation of things learned about God over time. It’s the impression, the viewpoint we have about our God.   It frames the way we think and the way we react to everything that happens around us and to us.

We also need to ask Him to “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). We need for Him to alert us to our blind spots and make us aware of wrong thinking.

But what do we do when we are plagued with thoughts we know are wrong, and even prayed for deliverance and victory over certain wrong thought patterns? I used to pray, “Lord, change my thoughts.” That’s not entirely wrong, because we can’t do anything without Him (John 15:5); however, He has given us tools in His Word to help us combat wrong thoughts. II Corinthians 10:4-5 says, “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.”

Someone once said that the best way to deal with a wrong thought is to replace it with another thought. If we just chant to ourselves, “Don’t think that, don’t think that, don’t think that,” we’re going to be stuck. Erwin Lutzer, in his book How to Say No to a Stubborn Habit, says that if someone tells you not to think of the number 8, then suddenly that’s all you’ll be able to think of. So rather than passively wishing and hoping our thoughts would be different, we need to actively turn our minds to right thoughts.

Sometimes that will happen during the regular course of our Bible reading: I don’t know how many times God has led me to help right when I needed it at that time. But sometimes it does take “chapter and verse for a time of need.” It helps to take a concordance and look up verses related to the problem we’re having. I’ve had the experience of angry feelings just melting away after reading verse after verse about anger. It helps to write them out, both so that they can work themselves into our minds while we’re writing them, and also so we can have a handy list to refer back to. Sometimes it helps to look up a number of verses; sometimes it helps to just take one especially helpful verse, write it out on a small card, and take with us everywhere to refer to often, pray through it, soak ourselves in it until it becomes a part of us. The more we are in God’s Word, the more the Holy Spirit can “bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26).

It helps, too, to concentrate not just on the negative thought you’re trying to change or eliminate, but also on the positive one that needs to take its place. Ephesians 4:28 says don’t steal any more, but rather labor. Verse 29 says don’t let corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but rather that which is edifying. Verses 31-32 say, “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” So when I am angry, I need to focus on love, forgiveness, and forbearing instead. When I am anxious, I need to remind myself of God’s sufficiency for whatever I am anxious about.

A few other considerations help in transforming our thinking. Recently I was talking with someone about a matter weighty on their heart, but they didn’t really want to listen (evidenced by their interrupting me in mid-sentence). I know at times I have experienced anxious thoughts frothing and spilling over like bubbles in a fountain. Jesus said to His disciples once, ” I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. (John 16:12). Sometimes we need to ” Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10a) before we can even hear or receive what He is trying to tell us. There are many verses about inclining our ears or heart to Him. One of my favorite verses is Isaiah 30:15a: “For thus saith the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel; In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength.” The more time we spend in His Word, the more we learn of Him and trust in Him, the more we rest in Him and quiet ourselves before Him, the more we can receive the ministry of His Spirit conveying His truth to our hearts.

I don’t mean by any of this that our sanctification or victory over sin is all in our hands. As I said earlier, we can only accomplish anything for God through His grace and power. But He has instructed us to read and meditate on His Word for this and many other reasons.

The ultimate means of change comes from beholding Christ: II Corinthians 3:18: But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.

According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. II Peter 1:3-4

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(Sharing with Literacy Musing Mondays, Inspire Me Mondays, Me, Coffee, and Jesus, Soul Survival, Testimony Tuesdays, #TellHisStory)

Finding Time to Read the Bible

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In a recent blog post I read (I’ve forgotten where), the blogger mentioned that the book she was reading on Bible study didn’t discuss where to find the time. I had the same thought with a book I am reading on the subject. I guess the authors feel that once we are assured of the importance of Bible reading and study, we’ll make it a priority and make time. And I think that’s pretty much what it comes down to. If by finding time we mean we want a time that magically opens up with the solitude and inclination we need without a dozen other things crowding in…I just don’t think that’s going to happen, at least not regularly. Years ago our assistant pastor spoke of struggling to make time for Bible reading, and said to our senior pastor, an older, godly man, “I guess you don’t have trouble making time for Bible reading any more, do you?” He just laughed.

Finding the time is always going to be a struggle. There are always duties, distractions, and people clamoring for that time, and even an Enemy of our souls fighting against it. Instead of getting discouraged about it, we can just accept that it is a common problem and  prayerfully seek ways to deal with it. Perhaps reminding ourselves of reasons to read the Bible will renew our motivation.

We need to remember, too, that making time to read the Bible isn’t just about ticking off another duty. Every relationship thrives on communication. If we went for days without talking with our husbands except in the briefest necessary exchanges, we’d feel the effects pretty soon and realize we need some time alone together. Though sometimes we need to set up routines to establish good habits, taking time to read the Bible shouldn’t be a matter of rigid schedules, but rather of taking time to meet with the One Who loves us best.

So with these things in mind, here are some suggestions for carving time out to meet with the Lord:

1. Get up earlier or stay up later. I can hear you groaning. But for many of us, that’s the only way to get some time alone.

2. Keep the Bible handy. One friend with three small children close in age kept her Bible out in her kitchen. She couldn’t set aside a longer period of solitude, but she could read in smaller snatches through the day.

3. Listen. Some people like to listen to recorded versions of the Bible while driving, exercising, making dinner, etc.

4. Plan for it after a natural break in the day. It’s hard for many of us to stop in the middle of a morning or afternoon and put everything aside to read, but a break in the routine, when we’re shifting gears anyway, can help us work in some time for reading, like after a meal, after taking the kids to school, etc.

5. Meal time, especially if you eat alone.

6. Waiting time. We usually pull out our phones or a book if we have to wait at a doctor’s office or in car line at school, but that can be a good time for some Bible reading.

7. Establish a routine. Once we get used to setting aside a certain time for Bible reading, it’s not such a scramble to look for that time every day.

8. Don’t wait for perfection. One problem with a routine is that we can’t always figure out how to function when the routine is disrupted, like when we’re traveling or someone is sick or we have small children at home. I wrote a post some time back called Encouragement for mothers of young children about the topic of trying to find time for devotions with little ones in the house. Though I normally like getting up early and having solitude and quietness for Bible reading, that just didn’t work with little ones. Yet God enabled me to read and profit from it while they kept me company or played near me, even though usually I couldn’t concentrate under those circumstances.

9. Anything is better than nothing. Normally I like a good amount of time for Bible reading or study, but when a few moments was all I truly had, God often gave me just what I needed in those few moments in just a verse or two.

10. Talk with your husband, roommates, siblings, whoever you live with. Years ago I caught part of a radio program where the preacher was scolding women who wanted to spend early morning time to have devotions, saying the husband as the leader should have that time, since the wife had “all day” in which she could have devotions. The man obviously had not spent a whole day at home alone with kids. That mentality is so wrong on many levels. Not long after that a missionary speaking at our church mentioned protecting that time for his wife, a much better example of servant leadership and love. If the only way either parent can have devotions is for one of them to watch the children, then they can do that for each other. If a particular time of day is the best time for two people in a house, they can work out different locations if they get too distracted in the same room. Whatever conflict there might be about time and place preferences, talk with each other to work out the best solution for both and be willing to compromise.

11. Pray. In the blog post I referred to earlier, I mentioned that sometimes I’d get to the end of the day and lament to the Lord that I had no idea when I could have read my Bible that day. I began instead to pray at the beginning  of the day for wisdom and alertness for those moments when I could, and that made a profound difference.

12. Set something aside. If we have times to read other books, peruse Facebook, watch TV, or play games on our phones, we have time to read the Bible. I admit, if I sit down to relax for a few minutes with a book and realize I haven’t read my Bible yet that day, I don’t always have the best attitude about laying down my book and picking up my Bible. But when I confess that to the Lord and then go ahead, He graciously speaks to me through His Word. We do need time to relax as well, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of time in God’s Word. He knows our needs, and we can ask Him for both time to spend in His Word and for some down time.

What about you? What ways have you found to make time for Bible reading?

Sharing at Thought-Provoking Thursday and Works For Me Wednesday.