Understanding The Bible: It's Not As Hard As You Think
Five principles that can prevent you from becoming a Bible study dropout
Most of us recognize that a vital spiritual life depends upon a growing knowledge of the Scriptures. We understand that knowing God’s Word helps us know God. Unless this desire is snuffed out, we instinctively want to study the Bible.
But many of us who have tried to make Bible study an important part of our lives have failed. We may know intellectually that knowing God’s Word is central to a growing Christian life, but we have concluded that it just doesn't work for us.
We may attend a church where we hear soundly Bible-based sermons. We may even participate in a Bible study group where we reap the harvest of others' hard work. But for many of us, serious personal Bible study falls by the wayside.
I’ve known many Christians who started out with a sincere desire to study and learn God’s Word, but eventually gave up in frustration. Why does this happen?
I think we need some guidelines to shape our expectations and experiences in Bible study. With that in mind, I'd like to suggest some basics for studying God’s Word.
Focus on One Book at a Time
Climbing Mount Everest is an impossible task if we attempt it in one giant leap. But if we take a first step, a second step, and so on, we can climb to the top. If the Bible is our Mount Everest, then we must study it in small steps, not one giant leap.
If you are just beginning with serious Bible study, try working on one of the gospels or one of the shorter letters of Paul, such as Philippians. At least initially, stay away from Romans and Revelation. They are very difficult to interpret correctly. In the Old Testament, start with one of the shorter prophetic books, such as Amos or Hosea.
How long should you stay in one book? It may sound like a long time, but I would suggest at least six months to a year. This will allow you to work your way through the book many times in increasing detail. The goal is to allow the text to sink deeply into your heart and mind so that it can begin to shape the way you think and act.
The value of studying one book in detail will become clear when you move on to a second book and begin to see connections between the books of the Bible as well as the richness of different perspectives.
Over a period of several years you will gradually build up your base of knowledge of the Scriptures.
Use Study Books and Commentaries
The Holy Spirit will guide your reading and will help you understand the Scriptures. But it is also important for you to use the many resources that are available for Bible study.
Choose books that will briefly explain the biblical text, provide some background, and give you an overview of the writing. Don't look for too much detail at this point. The purpose is to gain an orientation to the book.
When you have worked your way through one or two such introductory guides, it’s time to challenge yourself with more detailed studies of the biblical book. At this point you may want to choose a commentary that takes you through the biblical text verse by verse.
Work through one commentary at a time so that you will be able to understand that particular author’s viewpoint (and bias). Then work through a second commentary, this time noting any significant differences in interpretation.
Read and Study the Bible
Many of my students fall into the trap of reading the textbooks I assign without reading the Bible itself. That cuts them off from the true object of their study. It means they are relying on the interpretations of others rather than their own conclusions based on working their way through the biblical text.
As you approach the study of a book of the Bible, keep in mind that your primary responsibility is to understand God’s Word, not what people say about God’s Word. The first step is to read through the book you choose several times. Read it out loud in one sitting. Try to make sense of how its argument progresses. What are the important themes, words, or concepts presented? As you work your way through the study guides and commentaries, always come back to the biblical text itself and ask whether the writer of the commentary is faithfully interpreting what the Scriptures say.
Keep a Notebook
Many of us are reluctant to write in our Bibles. One solution is to photocopy the pages you are studying and place them in a three-ring binder. You can buy an inexpensive, large-print Bible for this purpose.
After photocopying the text, cut and paste the copies onto notebook paper so that you will have the text on one side of the page and room to write notes on the other side. Don't skimp on the margins you leave for your notes; you'll need lots of room. This binder then becomes your study book. As you work your way through the biblical text, underline important words and phrases. Write your questions and comments in the margin. As you read through the commentaries, continue to write down your notes and insights. As time goes on, your personal study book will become a gold mine of information and insight.
Search for Courses to Assist You
Many Christian colleges and Bible colleges offer courses in the Bible that are open to the general public. You can take them for credit, completing all the assignments and receiving a grade at the end, or you can register as an auditor, simply attending the classes and completing the readings without doing the assignments or taking examinations.
The benefits of taking a Bible course are threefold. First, you benefit from the instruction of someone who has spent a significant amount of time and energy immersed in the Bible. Second, the structure of a course can provide a discipline that many of us need in our study of the Bible. Third, the classroom environment can be a stimulant to further study of God’s Word because of the interaction with others.
If you are unable to commute to a campus, you might consider correspondence courses that work through a combination of written assignments and taped lectures.
Finally, if none of these options is possible, encourage your local church to establish a special Bible Conference and invite a guest teacher.
Stick with It
The hardest part of Bible study is the discipline to start and then continue. So set aside a specific time and place for your study, then stick to your plan.
There is no easy path to a mature knowledge of Scripture. But continued, systematic Bible study throughout a lifetime can immeasurably enrich our Christian experience.
Studying the Bible shapes our attitudes and actions in ways we would seldom expect. It deepens our knowledge of God and of ourselves, and it makes us aware of the deep inner workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
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