Better Bible Study Tip #12: Draw Conclusions

There are some people who tend to avoid hard questions in their Bible study. They think they have it all down. That’s not a healthy approach to Bible study.

But there’s also some who thrive on hard questions. Take some time to read some scholarly books about the Bible, and you’ll see what I mean. Often times scholars love to raise different, often overlooked, questions. They very frequently remind others that maybe they don’t have things down as firmly as they think they do. They love reminding others that there’s more to think about.

Scholarship isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes we might not have as firm of an understanding of a subject as we think we do. Sometimes we need to be reminded of those hard questions. Sometimes we need to be challenged to think through our positions a little more thoroughly. Sometimes we might even hold incorrect positions, and through the process of considering someone’s questions and objections, we end up exchanging error for truth in our own understanding. Go ahead. Ask the hard questions. Wrestle with scripture. The process of wrestling with questions can actually be a really enjoyable process. But we also need to remember that questions are not conclusions. We should seek to draw conclusions when we study Scripture, especially when it comes to critical points of doctrine. Yes, it is true that the Bible is clearer in some places than it is in others. But if your Bible study always ends with open ended questions and uncertainty, that’s not a healthy approach to Bible study either.

It is important to draw conclusions so that we can have a framework to make decisions. We are not supposed to be “double-minded” and “unstable” people who are continually filled with doubt (Jas. 1:5-8). Meditating on God’s word is supposed to leave us grounded like a tree planted by rives of water (Ps. 1). No, we may not always feel like we have a perfect answer for every questions all the time, but if Scripture is profitable to teaching, reproof, and correction (2 Tim. 3:16-17), this implies that we should be drawing conclusions about how Scripture should impact our lives. As we mature as Christians, we are supposed to develop “discernment” (Heb. 5:14; Phil. 1:9-11) to draw wise conclusions.

At some point we have to land the plane in Bible study, even when we know that the plane will eventually have to take off again. You can draw conclusions, and still remain humble about the limits of your knowledge. It’s okay to draw tentative conclusions, and then allow yourself to revisit an issue at a later time. But at some point we have to draw conclusions.

Better Bible Study Tip #11: Don’t Be Discouraged By Your Lack of Omniscience

“What if someone asks me a question and I don’t know the answer?” This is a very common concern for people when they are asked to teach a Bible class or lead a personal Bible study for the very first time. But it’s not just first time Bible teachers who have a hard time admitting “I don’t know.” Sometimes experienced teachers, preachers, elders, and deacons have unique struggle with this as well. People often presume that we have it all nailed down. We don’t. It’s not always easy to sound uncertain in front of people, but sometimes it’s the truth. Sometimes we’re just not certain. It happens with every one of us non-omniscient beings.

But the truth is, even if we put up a front of confidence, I don’t think we’re fooling anyone. None of us have all the answers all the time, and we all know it. It’s okay to give it your best shot at giving the right answer right now, and then say “but I’m not positive. I’ll keep studying and get back to you.” People tend to respect those who are humble and honest enough to admit that they don’t know it all.

Psalm 1 describes the ideal Bible student as someone who meditates on God’s law day and night. The Bible is not a book that is designed to be perfectly grasped on the first (or even the hundred and first) reading. It is a book that is designed to be meditated on throughout a lifetime. There’s always more we can learn.

Embrace your ignorance. If you remain humble, continue to ask hard questions, continue to absorb information, continue to grow more familiar with scripture, and continue remain submissive to God’s word, you will continue grow. You will change your mind from time to time. You will grow more nuanced in your understandings of certain topics. You will grow more firmly convinced of others. Don’t be discouraged by your lack of omniscience. Just keep studying.

Better Bible Study Tip #10: Insist on Getting It Right

When you read “Insist on getting it right”, what comes to mind? Maybe it’s just me, but I must confess, my initial reaction to that phrase is not entirely positive. It makes me think of stubbornness. It makes me think of people who can’t be reasoned with. It makes me think of harshness. It makes me think of unloving relationships. It makes me think of rudeness. Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hunch that most of us have had negative experiences with people who were so stuck on one particular way of viewing things (“the truth”… at least from their point of view), that they end up saying all kinds of hurtful things towards those who draw different conclusions.

So when you read “insist on getting it right”, if your initial reaction is a negative one, I get it. But hear me out. When it comes to Bible study, truthful interpretation still matters. It is still important to get it right.

Insisting on a right interpretation of the Bible doesn’t necessitate stubbornness. In fact, stubbornness often stands in the way of understanding truth, because it makes us less likely to recognize our own mistakes.

Insisting on a right interpretation of the Bible isn’t antithetical to love. It isn’t antithetical to kindness. It isn’t antithetical to listening to others. It isn’t antithetical humility.

It is possible to love truth, and love people at the same time. It is possible to love truth and be kind towards those who draw different conclusions. It is possible to love truth and to remain humble and open to the possibility of being wrong.

Just because you’ve had bad experiences with people who justified unloving actions in the name of truth, that should not lead us to the conclusion that truth doesn’t matter.

When it comes to Bible study, we want to understand it rightly. If we believe the Bible is inspired, we need to follow what it says, even when right interpretation comes in conflict with what we’ve been taught to believe. If the Bible is a guide for our lives, a light to our path, a protection from sin, a source of divine wisdom, the way to understand the gospel, the way we know how to please God, the source of Christian doctrine, a guide for right relationships with others, we want to get it right.

Yes, be kind. Yes, be loving. Yes, remain humble. But insist on getting the Bible right. Think critically. Be tenacious. Demand clarity. Wrestle with scripture, and insist on getting it right.

Better Bible Study Tip #9: Observe, Then Interpret, Then Apply, In That Order

Not all Bible study methods are created equal. Unfortunately, some very popular methods of Bible study just aren’t that good.

Think about the way topical Bible studies are often done. The student begins with some premise in mind, such as a particular topic or application they want to make from scripture. And then they begin searching for all the scriptures that correspond to that subject. “Ready references” and Google searches can be very helpful in this part of the process.

Although topical studies can be done well when they are done very carefully by Bible students who already know their Bibles well, they can also be dangerous. Mining scripture for a particular point of application can easily lead to false conclusions, because it usually fails to carefully observe important details about the text, such as context.

This approach to Bible study tends to increase the possibility of false conclusions due to confirmation bias. We all have preconceived ideas about what we think the Bible teaches. When we mine through scripture for a particular idea, we will usually find what we are looking for, even if our preconceived ideas are wrong. Even many experienced preachers with high levels of Bible education tend to fall into this type of mistake.

Objectiveness requires an openness to the text. That’s why good Bible study begins with observation before any conclusions are drawn. Since we cannot simply “unknow” our preconceived ideas, we must intentionally set them aside and approach the text with as much openness and objectivity as we can possibly muster.

Better Bible study begins with careful observation of what a text actually says rather than a search for information that will support our ideas. When we observe before we interpret and apply, we will be far more likely to discover the text’s structure, rather than impose our own outline on it. We will be more likely to let the inspired context inform our understanding rather than taking a text in isolation. We will be more likely to discover the inspired author’s intended meaning rather than using his words for our own intentions. We will be more likely to discover the shortcomings in our own understanding rather than ignoring the unknowns in the text. When we begin with observation of the text, we will be less dependent on the interpretations of others, and more dependent on the original authors.

Another benefit of putting observation before interpretation and application is that it is more exciting. There’s something thrilling about discovering something new about the Bible. A Bible student should approach the text with a commitment to let the text speak for itself. A careful examination of the text will often lead to the discovery of new insights we have never noticed before. When this happens, we will find ourselves eager to share our insights with others! By the time we finish our study, we will have enjoyed the process so much that we will be eager to study the Bible more.

Who said that Bible study has to be boring? Start with observation, then interpret, then apply, in that order.

Better Bible Study Tip#8: Study to Understand the Meaning of the Text, Not to Defend Your Views

There are two kinds of Bible students, sectarians and truth seekers. We all run in different groups. A sectarian is one who firmly aligns himself with his group, and always seek to defend the views of his group. A sectarian takes it for granted that the views of his group are the right ones, and anyone who opposes the views of his group should be opposed. Some sectarians are liberal. Some are conservative. Some are traditionalist. Some are critics. Sectarians can be found in all kinds of different groups, but all sectarians align their own beliefs with the beliefs of their particular group.

Truth seekers are always willing to look into the views of others, and will examine those beliefs to see if there is any truth in those views. He won’t simply accept the views of others without close examination. But if a different understanding can withstand close examination, the truth seeker is always willing to admit that he was wrong and is ready to change his mind. The truth seeker is willing to adopt truth, even if it means opposing his own group from time to time. The truth seeker is always willing to examine truth, even if it means admitting that an opposing group is right on a particular point. Some truth seekers can be found in conservative groups. Some truth seekers can be found in liberal groups. Truth seekers can be found in all kinds of groups, but they are willing to separate themselves from their group whenever truth demands it.

If Jesus is Lord, then He deserves our allegiance. If our allegiance to our group is stronger than our allegiance to Jesus, we may end up becoming skilled at arguing for what our group says a passage means rather than becoming skilled in actually studying the text for ourselves. The goal of Bible study shouldn’t be about finding ammunition to make someone guilty, or to shame someone on the other side of an argument into submission. If our allegiance is to God, our Bible study should be aimed at righty understanding Scripture, regardless of who is right.

Better Bible Study Tip #7: Getting an Emotional Buzz is Not the Goal of Bible Study

God created humans to be emotional beings. We can’t have deep, meaningful relationships with God or with other people without emotions. If we truly love God, we should be emotionally moved from time to time when we spend time in Scripture.

But the goal of Bible study is not to achieve some sort of emotional buzz. Good Bible study seeks to understand the intent of the author, regardless of how the text makes us feel.

Have you ever sat in a Bible class and heard someone say “Well, I don’t thing God would ever _____” Or “I could never serve a God who _____”? These are common phrases that come from an emotional approach to Bible study. This is a dangerous way to study the Bible. What if the Bible is actually supposed to challenge our emotions from time to time? If we go to the Bible and ask “Okay, what can I pull from this verse that feels good to me?” we will end up skipping over all kinds of texts in the Bible just because they don’t incite the kind of emotional buzz we are looking for. Or worse, we may disregard the author’s intent entirely if it doesn’t match up with our more emotionally appealing reading of the verse.

For example, look at Romans 8:31 without considering what happens before it:

“What shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”

At first glance, it sounds so empowering! “No one can stand in the way of my dreams!” But this over simplified, and misleading understanding of the verse fades away entirely when we study the verse in context. If we ask harder questions, such as “What did Paul mean when he said this?”, and “How would the original audience have understood Paul here?”, we will easily notice that Paul is actually encouraging Christians to embrace a life of Christ-like suffering! If we understand a verse differently than how the original audience would have understood the verse, we’re the ones who have it wrong.

Sometimes people will speak of “letting the Spirit lead them” in order to justify this kind of emotional-response method of reading. But the Bible actually teaches nearly the opposite. “For God has given us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). A spirit that has self-control over emotions is actually a gift from God.

Nowhere do we read that the early Christians “Searched the scriptures daily” to feel a certain way. Bible study is not about you. We study to gain a better understanding of God, a better understanding of His plan, and a better understanding of what He wants from us. God created us as emotional beings. We can’t have a true understanding of God – and the emotional impact that brings – without disciplined, self-controlled study of God’s word.

Better Bible Study Tip #6: Insist on Following the Text Wherever It Leads, No Matter What

The Bible is the word of God. Treat it as such.

We all have our opinions. We all have our ways of viewing the world. We all have a certain way of thinking about Christianity. We all hold certain doctrinal positions on different topics, and in most cases, we view those doctrinal positions as deeply important. We all have various beliefs that are deeply engrained into how we think. That’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes it can be a good thing. It’s just the truth about how people think.

None of us approach the Bible from a purely objective position. We all have biases. It’s almost always easier to pick up on information that confirms our previously held beliefs than it is to find information that challenges our beliefs.

But this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to be a good student of the Bible. It just means that we need to be careful to remain humble. Humility is the best friend to objectiveness.

When studying the Bible, the text is all that matters. Previously help positions don’t matter. Our current way of viewing the world doesn’t matter. The views that are popularly held in our churches don’t matter. The views that are most acceptable in our society don’t matter. The inspired text is what matters. That’s why we must be willing to follow the text wherever it leads us, no matter what.

Yes, we all have deeply held beliefs, but we must have well informed exegetical arguments for the positions we hold. This can only be achieved if we are humble and honest with the text. If we have a hard time explaining from Scripture why we hold a particular view, we must be open to the possibility that maybe we don’t have a good scriptural reason for holding that view. To hide those possibilities or to manipulate the text to support our conclusions is dishonest, and it doesn’t demonstrate a very high view of scripture.

The Bible is what is inspired, and nothing else. Loyalty to God means loyalty to His inspired scriptures. Loyalty to His inspired scriptures means following scripture wherever it leads, no matter what. By definition, a belief is not biblical if it does not derive from the text of the Bible.

Following the text can be hard. Sometimes it means saying “I’m not sure if I’m right on this point.” Sometimes it means saying “There’s a chance I might be wrong on this point.” Sometimes it means changing your mind. Sometimes it means holding stubbornly to a position, even when everyone derides you for being far too conservative. At other times it means holding stubbornly to a position, even when it means that others begin to suspect that you might be a liberal. Sometimes it means holding a position that is completely out of step with the values of our society. So be it.

Neither your opinions, nor the opinions of any other person are inspired. The text is what is inspired. Insist on following the text wherever it leads, no matter what.

The Most Embarrassing Family Story

If you’re looking for a strong internal proof that the book of Genesis is historically reliable, read Genesis 30:1-24. This passage records for us the origin of the twelve tribes of Israel (except for Benjamin, although his future birth is alluded to in 30:24). It would be difficult to imagine a more embarrassing family story. You would never make up a story like this to describe the origins of your great nation.

If you wanted to craft an impressive origin story for your nation, you would come up with something along the lines of Romulus and Remus, or some other exalted tale. But you would never write a story about how your nation was formed by two sisters who became so envious of one another that they got into baby wars with their concubines while the founding father of your nation was helplessly passed back and forth between these feuding women.

But the story is written in a way that, while surely causing shame and embarrassment for the tribes of Israel, ultimately gives glory to God, who’s greatness is highlighted with every birth.

Jacob’s Helplessness

The background of the story can be found in Genesis 29, where Jacob falls in love with Rachel. He works seven years to marry Rachel, but when the time comes, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Rachell’s less attractive sister, Leah. Jacob then works another seven years for Rachel.

Chapter 29 ends by focusing on Jacob’s unloved wife, Leah. “When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb” (29:31). God blessed Leah with four sons:

  • Ruben (meaning “See, a son”, because the God saw Leah’s affliction)
  • Simeon (meaning “heard” because God heard she was hated)
  • Levi (meaning “attached”, because she hoped that Jacob would now become attached to her)
  • Judah (meaning “praise”, because she praised the LORD for her sons).

But, as the text notes, “Rachel was barren” (29:31). Chapter 30 begins with Rachel confronting Jacob about her childlessness. “Give me children, or I shall die!” (v. 1). In response, Jacob is forced to admit something that he has never admitted to himself before, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (v. 2).

This is the same Jacob who manipulated Esau out of his birthright and who schemed Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing. Now, for the first time in his life, Jacob is powerless to change his circumstances. He was having sons left and right, but he couldn’t change the fact that Rachel was barren. He loved Rachel. He would have loved for her to have children, but Jacob was not God. With language echoing the Garden of Eden, Jacob recognized that God had “withheld… the fruit”.

Rachel’s Schemes

But forbidden fruit didn’t stop Rachel from thinking herself to be wise. Like Eve giving Adam the forbidden fruit, Rachel “gave him” her servant Bilhah to bear fruit in her place. Rachel’s servant then bore Jacob two sons:

  • Dan (meaning “vindicated”, because Rachel felt that God had finally vindicated her)
  • Naphtaili (meaning “God-wrestles”, because Rachel was “wrestling” against her sister, and God allowed her to prevail)

But Rachel’s plan was stalemated when Leah countered by giving Jacob her servant girl, Zilpah, by which Jacob had two more sons.

  • Gad (meaning “good fortune”)
  • Asher (meaning “happy”)

This leads to Rachel’s second plot. Rachel approached Leah, and decided to purchase some of her mandrakes (a fruit believed to increase fertility) in exchange for giving Leah a night with Jacob. But the plan backfires. The mandrakes don’t help Rachel, but the night with Jacob does help Leah. Leah has two more sons:

  • Issachar (meaning “wages”, because God had given Leah her “wages”)
  • Zebulun (meaning “honor”, because Rachel now believed that Jacob would finally honor her)

God’s Gift

These embarrassing baby wars set the stage for verses 22-24:

Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” And she called his name Joseph (meaning “may he add”), saying “May the LORD add to me another son!

Genesis 30:22-24

Rachel was finally given a son, Joseph. Considering the larger context of Genesis, we know why this birth was so significant. This is Joseph, the brother who would save his family from starvation during the famine.

After the powerlessness of Jacob, and after all the failed schemes of Rachel, the LORD finally makes His move. The LORD simply opened Rachel’s womb, and she conceived. That simple. Suddenly, for the first time in the story, Rachel utters the words “The LORD.” Despite all the scheming, and all the embarrassment, ultimately it is God who gives what is needed.

The Gospel According to Genesis

What are we to make of this strange and embarrassing origin story? Why is it important to realize that the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel came about through such a pitifully dysfunctional family?

On one hand, it would be easy to draw a few moralistic lessons from such a story. Polygamy is bad. Don’t be jealous of someone else who has more kids than you. Don’t blame your spouse for something that is outside of their control. These are all good lessons that could obviously be drawn from the text. But the significance of this story is not just to offer good advice on how to avoid getting into a messy situation, but to remind us that even in the worst situations, God never stops working to fulfill his purposes.

God always keeps his promises. It is incredibly important that we remember this. It’s easy to see how messed up the world is these days. And unfortunately, in many cases, the church it seems like the church is just as messed up. Yes, it’s easy to grow discouraged, but the danger of forgetting God’s faithfulness is far greater than simple discouragement.

When the thought of God’s faithfulness fades into the background, and we grow frustrated like Rachel, we may find ourselves, like Rachel, looking to our own schemes to fix our situation, rather than simply being faithful to God. If we’re not careful, frustration can cause us to lose focus on the big picture.

What Genesis 30 shows us about God’s character is seen even more fully in the cross of Jesus. Israel’s embarrassing origin story has nothing on the embarrassment of the Christian origin story. There has never been a more poignant example of human failure than what is seen in the false accusation, corrupt judgment, and gruesome murder of the innocent Jesus. The cross shows us that no matter how wicked or dark things may get, God can bring about his good intentions. If God can bring about the world’s greatest good out of the murder of his innocent Son, he can bring about good from pandemics, social panics, apathetic churches, and corrupt political schemes (cf. Rom. 8:28).

Think about the significance of the names of Jacob’s sons. When we find ourselves lonely or rejected like Leah, we need to remember that we serve a God who “sees”, a God who “hears”, a God who provides “attachment”, a God who deserves our “praise”. When we feel powerless to fix a bad situation like Jacob, we need to remember that we serve a God who “vindicates”, who “wrestles” on our behalf. When we are tempted to come up with our own schemes like Rachel, we need to remember that “good fortune”, “happiness”, “wages”, and “honor” come from God. In the end, God remember Rachel’s sorrow, and he “added” to her a son, a savior.

The gospel is the most embarrassing family origin story of all time, and yet it is the greatest reversal of evil this world has ever seen. God will remember his people and his purposes.

Better Bible Study Tip #5: Daily Bible Reading is NOT the Key

I’m a big fan of daily Bible reading routines. Like most people, it usually helps me to have a set time of day, with some sort of Bible reading goal to work towards. If having a daily Bible reading routine helps you, you should do it. But better Bible study is not necessarily tethered to having a daily bible reading routine. If we’re not careful, daily Bible reading routines can become, well, routine. It can sometimes become just one of those things on our spiritual checklist. Again, that doesn’t make daily Bible reading routines bad. Boring “checklist” Bible reading is still better than going weeks and months on end without reading our Bibles. But having a daily Bible reading routine doesn’t guarantee that we’re having better Bible study.

Bible study takes more time, effort, and concentration than reading. Good Bible study can be tiring. I don’t know about you, but there’s a lot of days when I just don’t have the time or energy to do deep Bible study. But that shouldn’t discourage us. Some of the most knowledgeable Bible students I know don’t do deep Bible study every single day.

The point isn’t that daily Bible reading isn’t good. It is. The point is, we need to be intentional about taking the time to actually think about what we’re reading and to develop clarity about our questions. Ultimately the goal of Bible study is to comprehend and remember Scripture better, not just to have a daily routine for the sake of a routine.

One easy step to improve our Bible study would be to take time throughout the day to think about what we read. Maybe do this while driving down the road, or while mowing grass, or while putting away the dishes. Retrieve some thought from you Bible reading, and meditate on it. Summarize the text to yourself. Think about why it is important. Look for weaknesses your own understanding of the text. Think about questions that you feel like you need to study in more depth. You may be surprised to find just how much it will help you to process text in more meaningful ways.

Better Bible Study Tip #4: Don’t Just Read – Study

Yes, Christians should read their Bibles regularly. But regular Bible reading isn’t where good Bible study ends. It’s where good Bible study begins. In order to move from Bible reading to better Bible study, we first need to realize that there is a difference between reading and studying.

Reading is easy. It’s surface level. It’s often enjoyable (although let’s be honest, sometimes reading can be boring too, depending on what we’re reading). It doesn’t require much effort. By reading we are able to cover large amounts of text in a fairly short amount of time.

Bible study is different. It takes concentration. It takes effort. When we study the Bible, we’re asking questions, we’re considering different possible answers to those questions, we’re searching for information, we’re considering the strengths and weaknesses of various positions, we’re forming judgments, we’re drawing conclusions, and we’re seeking to apply those conclusions.

Imagine if you and a friend were aliens from a different planet, and Michael Jordan and the Tune Squad were to challenge you to a game of basketball. Since you are from a different planet, you don’t know anything about basketball. You decide to prepare for the game by looking up the word “Basketball” in a dictionary. “Basketball: A game played between two teams of five players in which goals are scored by throwing a ball through a netted hoop fixed above each end of the court.”

But your friend decides to take his research a step further. How is the game actually played? What are the rules? Are there different kinds of strategies? What kinds of skills are needed for the game of basketball? How can my team of monstars acquire those skills? How can we practice for the big game?

Whoa. That’s way over the top. But we know why. Our friend is interested in more than simply reading about basketball. Our friend has a purpose in mind. He wants to actually prepare to master the game. His aim is studying, not just reading.

There’s a big difference. Bible reading is good, but it’s not the same as Bible study. Both are needed if we’re going to be better Bible students.