Better Bible Study Tip #21: Get Into Debates

We’ve seen it happen dozens of times. Someone says something online. Someone else chimes in to disagree. Both sides become defensive. Tempers flare. Harsh words are used. It doesn’t take long for online debates to descend into virtual shouting matches. In the end, no one changes their mind, and everyone just feels frustrated with each other.

But it would be a mistake to think of debates as synonymous with hostility. There is such a thing as a healthy debate. When debates are held within the confines of humility, self-control, and kindness, they can be extremely productive and enjoyable by all the parties involved.

One of the greatest benefits of a healthy debate is the way it challenges critical thinking. As you find yourself confronted with another position, you will be challenged to make well thought out and well reasoned arguments for why you believe something. It helps you to reflect on the potential weaknesses of your position. It even helps you grow more humble. If you get into debates, you will soon realize that you aren’t right 100% of the time!

Debates help you to improve articulation. Have you ever had the feeling that you just can’t get the words out of your mouth, that you can’t get them out quick enough, or that you can’t explain yourself without rambling on and on? The practice of getting into debates helps you grow in your ability to communicate complex ideas in a succinct and effective manner.

Debates help you to nuance your positions appropriately. They help you to avoid illogical extremes. Your ability to express truth effectively will be enhanced by confrontation with error. At other times, you may actually exchange error for truth in your own life. So regardless of whether you win or lose the debate, you win!

Of course, we all need to avoid pointless online shouting matches. One way to do this is to be wise in who you choose to debate. Usually debates with close, respected friends will be more productive than debates with strangers. Private debates tend to be more effective than public debates, where pride can make it more difficult to admit when we are wrong. Be careful to avoid personal insults, and ignore insults when they come your way. Have an exit plan. Know when to walk away. Be willing to lose. Conduct yourself in a way so that you can leave feeling guilt free.

But don’t avoid debates entirely. We live in a polarized world, where people tend to talk past one another. We need to strike a balance. The Bible is too important not to debate. Let’s dig into the inspired words. Let’s figure out where we stand, and let’s grow, together closer to the God who stands above us all. We are to be conformed to Christ, not to our own limited understanding.

Better Bible Study Tip #20: Use a Variety of Methods

Most of us are creatures of habit. It’s easy to find a routine that we like, and then stick to it. But when it comes to Bible study, it can be really helpful to mix up our routine every now and then.

There’s lots of different Bible study methods we could use. One of the most basic is the verse-by-verse study, where we slowly move through a paragraph, examining each phrase, paying close attention to each conjunction so see how each phrase relates to others, and figuring out what each sentence means in part of the larger unit.

Similar to the verse-by-verse study is a chapter-by-chapter, or “big picture” study. Instead of closely examining each individual phrase, we could read through an entire book, paying attention to the overall flow of the book, structure, and repeated themes.

There’s also topical studies, where we pick out a particular topic and pay attention to everything written on that topic throughout the whole Bible. For example, if we wanted to study baptism, we might start by flipping through the Old Testament, paying attention to every time that God saved people through water. Then we might look up all the examples of baptism and compare them to each other. Then we might look up everything that is written about the significance and meaning of baptism.

There’s also character studies, where we focus on a single character, and look up every passage where he or she appears, with the goal of building a profile about what that person was like. What kind of situations did they face? How did they respond? How did they grow? What led to their downfall? etc.

There’s other study methods out there as well. Take some time and ask some of your Christian friends what study methods they use. You might try their approach. Mixing up our study methods challenges our thinking. Try it. You might learn something new.

Better Bible Study Tip #19: Study With a Pen In Hand

Besides your Bible, there is no more important Bible study tool than a pen and a notebook.

What should the pen be used for? Practically anything you want. That’s the beauty of it. If you have a thought from the text, write it down. If you have a question about the text, write it down. If you want to sketch out an outline of the text, do it. If you simply want to make note of a key word, write it down. If you are having a hard time focusing, use your pen to list your distractions. If you want to rephrase a scripture if your own words, do it. If you want to write down all the possible interpretations of a text, do it. If you think of a tentative conclusion to a question, write it out, along with the supporting ideas that led you to that conclusion. And later, if you decide your conclusion is not a very strong one, just scribble it out. Draw arrows, symbols, circles, squares, or anything else that helps you capture your thoughts. Even if you choose not to write anything at all, always study with a pen in hand and a notebook near by. That way if you have a passing thought you want to capture, you will have the ability to do so.

To put pen to paper is to think. The process of figuring out what to write down requires observation, reflection, and analysis, even if on a very simple, almost subconscious level. But it is impossible to choose what to put on paper without thinking. It’s really that simple.

Unlike typing on a computer, when you are using a pen and paper, formatting is never an issue. Is your handwriting messy? Who cares? You aren’t writing for anybody for yourself.

Sometimes you will sit down to study, but a distraction happens. But if you are in the habit of writing down your thoughts, it can be easy to pick up right where you left off without losing your train of thought. You may not ever reference your notes again, but then again, you might.

Always study with a pen in hand.

“God’s Provisions of Authority” by David Lipscomb

The Gospel Advocate; January 23, 1866

We propose investigating, at this time, the relationship of the church to the political institutions of earth. In the investigation of this subject, we shall use certain terms, very common in themselves, but hardly with a sufficient definiteness of meaning to permit a use of them in this investigation, without first defining them. We shall use the adjectives, civil and political, when connected with the institutions of earth, as indicating those of human origin, in contradiction to those of divine origin. Civil government then, is a government founded by man for the well-being of the human family, in contradiction from a government founded of God for man’s well-being. With this definition, it will at a glance be seen that no civil or human institutions can exist in a government exclusively of God. Hence we never hear of a civil policy in the Church of God. God alone is the law-giver to his church. It also behooves us in determining definitely what relationship now exists between the Church of Christ and the political governments of the world, to inquire into the origin of each, whence did they originate, how stood they with reference to each other in the beginning, too, the successive changes that have taken place in each, with reference to the other, and how these changes have been regarded by God, the great arbiter of right and wrong. By pursuing this course we feel sure that a definite and clear appreciation of the relationship of church and state, may be arrived at, which will be of benefit to both, if acted upon.

Commencing then with the first creation of man the subject of both the human and divine governments, we find that God, in proposing to create him in his own image, declared that,

he shall have dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping think that creepeth upon the face of the earth.

Genesis 1:26

Man, having been created, receives his commission to live and act. In that he is empowered to,

subdue the earth, and to have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Genesis 1:28

All authority is of God and from God. He, the maker of all things, alone had the right to assign to every created thing its position, functions, and powers.

There is no person or thing then in the universe that can rightfully occupy any particular position or exercise any especial authority or power, save by appointment directly from God. All other exercise of authority must be in rebellion against the Creator. God here directly delegates to man the right to subdue and control the whole lower creation. He is assigned the position of head of this under creation, and has the unquestioned right to hold it subservient to his own will and to command it to the accomplishment of his own purposes.

But who governs and directs man? Has God empowered him to control and direct himself? We find no such power delegated to him, but on the contrary He says, “that it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps aright.” But in contrast with his delegating this authority to man to control the brute creation, the inspired historian says in Genesis 11:16, “The Lord God commanded the man.” In other words, I have given you, man, the right and power to control and use under creation, but I reserve to myself the right, the sole right to govern and control you.

It is noteworthy, that when God once delegated authority to an under agent, he never himself interfered with the exercise of that authority, or reassumed it to himself. Hence, having once delegated to man the right to control the under creation, he never interfered with the exercise of that right. So we find him nowhere issuing commands to the under portion of creation. Still less, we may safely conclude, will he tolerate interference upon the part of man, with what he has reserved to himself as his peculiar prerogative. Then God reserved to himself the sole right to govern and control man, the assumption to govern himself or to govern his fellow man was an interference with God’s prerogative.

In accordance with this reserved right or prerogative of God, we find that he has always made provision for its exercise, by keeping continually a government of his own, in which he proposes to direct man. In the Garden of Eden he governed Adam, to provided for his government, by commands given directly to him in person. When he chose to try his own capacity to direct his steps aright, death, with its untold horrors, resulted. When Adam refused to obey his Maker’s law, as thus given, was driven from the garden of Eden, God still provided a government for all who were disposed to submit to his authority, though the patriarchal institution. In this the father was law-giver and law executor of God to his family.

When the family, that recognized God’s authority, had grown in numbers and proportions to the strength of a nation, God changed his institution from a family to a national government. Under this establishment Moses was not the law-maker, but the law-giver to the Jewish nation. God, himself alone, was the law-maker. We wish it observed that there was no human or civil polity in the Jewish government as it came from its maker. God gave the law through Moses. Through the Prophets and Judges, God applied his own law to the difficulties and differences that arose among his people, and himself through his Urim and Thummim decided every dispute that was brought to His judgment seat. There was here no human legislative, judicial, or executive authority, save as it was under the direct guidance of God.

This institution having superceded and supplanted the Patriarchal dispensation, continued until perverted by the introduction of a human polity, it corrupted the people it had been established to keep pure. When this people, as a whole, had rejected God’s government, and had substituted instead thereof, a human one, God rejected them as his people. Howbeit a few of that nation had, in spite of the influence of the perverted government, maintained their integrity to God. Under the providential workings of God with the other nations of the earth, the minds of some individuals of other nations had also been prepared for the reception of God’s government. He then introduced a new dispensation suited to embrace individuals, many or few, under any and all the nationalities of earth and for all time. This new dispensation, universal in its nature, superceded and supplanted the Jewish national dispensation, as it had done the patriarchal, but this is to stand forever.

God then, in accordance with his design of governing man, has at no time left himself without a government. These governments have been at all times complete and perfect in themselves, needing no interpolation or addition from human hands. To the Jews he said,

What thing soever I command you, observe to do it, you shall not add thereto nor diminish from it.

Deuteronomy 12:32

In the universal or Christian dispensation, he said,

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect thoroughly furnished unto every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16

For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book, and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and out of the things that are written in this book.

Revelation 22:18-19

So God has always provided an institution for man’s government, free from the defilement of human hands. In his government then there can be no civil or human polity.

Better Bible Study Tip #18: Read Books of the Bible In Their Entirety

I don’t have the time to watch movies like I used to. Most nights, I only have 15 or 20 minutes after the kids go to sleep to sit down and watch TV. That means that if I want to watch a movie, I can only watch a few scenes at a time. It usually takes me about a week to watch a full movie. It’s kind of annoying. Movies were designed to be watched in one sitting without interruption. If I ever have time to watch a movie in one sitting, it’s a treat.

The books of the Bible are the same way. When the churches in Galatia first received their letter from Paul, they didn’t say “Okay, this week we’re going to read and discuss chapter 1, and then next week we will read and discuss chapter 2, and so on until we finish the book.” No, they had the letter read to them from beginning to end. (The Bible wasn’t even divided into chapters and verses until the 1400’s!)

When we read books from beginning to end, it will be less likely that we will take a verse out of context. We will hear the entire flow of the author’s presentation. We will take in the text the way the author intended for us to take in the text. We will be more likely to hear what the author was saying to the original audience of his day. It’s not just the epistles where this practice helps. The books of the law, the books of history, wisdom literature, the prophets, the gospels, and Revelation all have a different feel to them when you read them straight through from beginning to end.

Try it. Read a book straight through. Do it in one sitting if possible. For those longer books, try to do it in just two or three sittings. The first time you do it, I guarantee you will notice things from the text you have never noticed before.

Better Bible Study Tip #17: “Study” is a Verb

“Study” is a verb. It is an action. It takes effort. It takes work. It takes intentionality. It takes focus. Sometimes it should make your brain feel tired.

If you’ve ever been to college, you probably know what real “study” is. When I was in high school, the subject material was so easy, I could grasp it by simply showing up and taking the test. But when I got to college, I had to put in some work. I had to spend time intentionally learning the material. I had to spend time memorizing, asking questions, and really trying to grasp the concept I was studying. “Study” is a verb. It takes work.

Think about most group Bible “studies” (i.e. Bible classes) you have attended. How often can we really call those classes Bible “study”? In many instances, the only real “study” in Bible classes is being done by the one who has prepared the lesson, while the rest are passive listeners. And in some instances, when the Bible class teacher lazily shows up and just sort of “wings it”, Bible “studies” can become little more than conversations loosely revolving around the Bible (that it, a “pooling of ignorance”).

Don’t misunderstand me. I love listening to Bible class teachers share what they have studied. I’m 100% in favor of Bible classes. I’m even okay with just sitting around in a room and casually talking about the Bible. But let’s not call it Bible study unless we’re actually putting in the work to learn our Bibles better.

Dedicate some time. Ask questions. Research. Memorize. Consult resources. Consider different points of view. Think. Don’t just passively take in the Bible study of others. Study your Bible.

Better Bible Study Tip #16: Clear Thinking is Not Antithetical to Love

Every now and then I’ll hear someone make a comment such as “at our church, we don’t overthink things. We don’t get bogged down in trying to dissect every scripture. We just focus on loving God and loving our neighbors. Read the red words, and listen to Jesus’s overall message, and you’ll be better off for it.”

Comments like that give me mixed feelings. There’s so much to appreciate in a statement like that. Yes, focus on loving God and loving neighbor. Those are, according to Jesus, the two greatest commands (Mt. 22:35-40). In 1 Corinthians 13:2, Paul said, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to apply the same principle to Bible study. Even if we grow to be experts in Bible knowledge, and can answer all the difficult questions about doctrine with skillful precision, but we don’t love God and don’t love others, all that Bible study is worthless.

And yes, one principle of good Bible study is to never loose sight of the big picture message (that was Bible Study Tip #13). And yes, ultimately all of Scripture points to Jesus, so the words written in red are of utmost importance. So yes, there is so much to appreciate in a statement like that.

What bothers me is the suggestion that clear thinking and attention to detail is somehow antithetical to love. Is it not possible to meditate on God’s word and be loving while we do it? Is it not possible to ask hard Bible questions without being a jerk about it? If we really love God, shouldn’t that drive us to make sure we are understanding and applying His words correctly? Is it not possible to pray attention to the details of God’s word without losing sight of the big picture message? Is it not possible that our assumptions about the big picture message could actually end up skewed if we don’t pay close attention to the details?

It is not a spiritual flaw to seek precise answers to hard questions. You don’t need to repent if you’re not satisfied with someone else’s explanation of a passage. Dampening our neighbor’s desire to understand scripture better by suggesting that they aren’t being a good disciple by asking hard questions isn’t part of loving our neighbor. Clear thinking is not antithetical to love.

Better Bible Study Tip #15: The Holy Spirit is Not an Excuse for Lazy Bible Study

There were multiple times in college when I would pray before taking an important exam. I would ask God to help me to do my best, and, if it be His will, for me to get a good grade. But I still studied.

Don’t misunderstand me. I believe that God answers prayers. I believe that God is powerful enough to providentially guide someone to select a correct answer now and then, if that’s what He decided to do. But if I had attempted to go through college without ever studying, and only praying before every exam, I’m pretty sure that God would have answered my request for a good grade with a big no.

It’s the same in Bible study. All too often people want to understand the Bible without putting in the time it takes to really think through what they are reading. And so they pray that God will guide them to a correct understanding of the Bible, and then trust that whatever impressions they draw from scripture must be correct, all because they prayed about it. There’s an unfounded assumption that the Holy Spirit will simply pick up the slack for us when we don’t study.

Now, we could do a careful study about John 16:13 to show that Jesus wasn’t discussing personal Bible study, but rather was addressing his apostles about how the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth. But for the moment, let’s leave that discussion aside. Because even if God answers prayers for a better understanding of the Scripture, we are still warned “do not believe every spirit, but test to spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4.1). We’re supposed to closely examine our ideas, and not simply assume they are from God.

I don’t see any reason to believe that God is in the habit of giving Christians a miraculous download of knowledge without them putting in the work. If God is going to answer our prayers for a better understanding of Scripture, He’s going to use the informational content that we’ve put into our minds.

It’s a good thing to pray while you study (see Psalm 119). But the Holy Spirit is a poor excuse to be lazy when it comes to studying Scriptures which are inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Better Bible Study Tip #14: Pay Attention to the Details

Sometimes the Bible doesn’t give us many details. Think about Melchizedek. We know almost nothing about the guy. We don’t know anything about his family. We don’t know how he became a priest of the Most High. We don’t know hardly anything about his reign as king. Very often, the Bible doesn’t tell us everything we want to know. But when the Bible does give details, pay close attention.

The fact that Melchizedek’s genealogy isn’t mentioned might at first seem quite insignificant. But that tiny detail was very significant to the author of Hebrews (Heb. 7:3).

There’s other times when tiny details in the text actually end up being very significant. When Jesus confronted the Sadducees about the resurrection (Mt. 22:32), He based His argument on something as simple as a verb tense. In Exodus 3:6, the LORD says “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” He didn’t say “I was the God of Abraham…”. The fact that God spoke in present tense implies that He is still Abraham’s God, even though Abraham is dead, which implies that there will be a resurrection of the dead. It’s a tiny detail, with huge implications.

In Matthew 22:44-45, Jesus bases an argument over something as seemingly insignificant as David addressing Psalm 110 to his “lord”. It’s a tiny detail, with huge implications.

In Galatians 3:16, Paul develops an argument based on the fact that God made a promise to Abraham’s “offspring”, rather than to Abraham’s “offsprings.” It’s a tiny detail, with huge implications.

Yes, it is critically important to understand the gist of what is being said in Scripture. But it’s not just the main idea that matters. When God spoke through prophets, He put specific words in their mouths (Jer. 1:8, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.”).

In 2 Timothy 3:16 it says that all Scripture is “breathed out by God”. Notice it doesn’t say that God simply breathed into already existing words. He breathed out the words themselves. Although the process of inspiration was very earthly, using human writers, who wrote to human audiences, in response to very earthly situations, the end result is the same. All Scripture came into existence as human authors were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21).

Every word of Scripture was breathed out by God. When the Bible includes details, pay attention. Tiny details can have huge implications.

Better Bible Study Tip #13: Think About the Big Picture

We’ve all seen photo mosaics before. If you zoom in close, you can see lots of little pictures, each with their own little details. Bit if you stay zoomed in, you can’t make sense of the big picture. If you step back, you can see how all those little pictures fit together into one big picture.

The Bible is the same way. Sure, it can be enjoyable to pick out a random Bible verse or story we like, and we can admire the little details. But if we’re only looking at the tiny pictures, it can make it really difficult to figured out how to use some parts of the Bible.

Sure, some verses are good to highlight and put on refrigerator magnets. But what about those verses in Leviticus that describe how different bodily fluids can make a person unclean? Those verses don’t make good magnets. Sure, some Bible stories make really good children’s books. But what about the story where Simeon and Levi murder a whole village of men who were sore from being circumcised? When is the last time you attended a Shechem-themed VBS? Yes, there is value in studying Bible stories up close on their own, or on meditating on a particular verse. But to really make sense of the whole Bible, we have to take a big step back.

Think about Jesus’ conversation with his disciples when He first appeared to them after his resurrection (Luke 24:36-49). As Jesus tried to explain what what had just happened, He said, “Thus it is written, that Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations beginning at Jerusalem” (vs. 46-47).

What Scripture was Jesus quoting? Where was it written in the Old Testament that the Messiah was to suffer and rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations? Absolutely nowhere in particular. There’s not a single Old Testament Scripture that says that. At least not until we take a big step back and look at the big picture story. Once we look at the big picture, we can see that the death and resurrection of the Messiah, and the necessity of preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations, is written everywhere!

Jesus wasn’t making up an imaginary scripture. He was in the habit of thinking about the big picture story. We should develop that same habit.