Better Bible Study Tip #39: Prayer Does Not Guarantee Correct Interpretation

Resist the temptation to believe that you have prayed yourself to a correct interpretation of scripture. Be careful not to think “I’m confident I can’t be wrong on this subject, because I’ve spent so much time in prayer about it.”

Of course, it should go without saying that we should continually surround our Bible study with prayer. We should be asking God to guide our thinking as we study, to help us to study with a humble and honest attitude, to help us to think clearly, and to help us to understand the text rightly. But as we pray about our study, we need to remember that God is not like a magic genie in a lamp. Although God does promise to answer our prayers, he does not promise to automatically grant us every wish.

Most of us already know that God doesn’t always give us what we pray for. When God answers our prayers with a “no”, we trust that God has good reasons for doing so. Paul prayed three times that his thorn in the flesh would be removed, but the answer was no (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Even Jesus was denied his request when he asked God to “let this cup pass from me” (Mt. 26:39).

Although it can be disappointing to not receive what we pray for, upon just a little bit of reflection, it’s easy to understand why this might be the case. Maybe what we have asked for isn’t actually good for us. Maybe our motives aren’t right. Maybe God has something better planned. Maybe by denying our request, God is providing an opportunity for us to grow.

But why would God ever deny someone’s prayer to understand scripture correctly? Why wouldn’t God want that? How could God possibly answer such a prayer negatively?

Of course God wants us to understand scripture correctly. He desires us to understand scripture correctly just like he wants us to worship with a reverent attitude, to treat our spouses with love and respect, to love our enemies, and to be generous with our money towards those in need. But all of these things also depend on our own will, our own commitment to obedience, our own wisdom, and our own efforts. For example, if we pray that a person in need will be warm and be filled, but we refuse to give them the things they need, what good is that? (cf. Jas. 2:16).

It’s the same way with Bible study. Yes, we should pray that God will guide our thinking as we study scripture. But we still have to make sure we are studying with a humble and honest attitude. We still have to make sure we are meditating on the scriptures day and night. We still have to make sure we are reading scriptures in context. We still have to put in the hard work that good bible study requires. It is good to pray about out study, but prayer must never become an excuse for a lazy and sloppy treatment of the text.

This is obvious if you think about it. All you have to do is find two people who have arrived at different conclusions from their study, both of whom have prayed about their Bible study. This happens all the time.

The point of this is not to suggest that we shouldn’t waste our time praying. The Bible teaches that God does answer prayers. The point is that prayer doesn’t guarantee that our conclusions are always correct. We must continue to put in the effort of continually doing good and intellectually responsible Bible study.

Better Bible Study Tip #38: Not All Interpretations are Equally Valid

Different bible class teachers have different styles of teaching. As long as the teacher keeps “Bible study” as the primary objective of the class, I can appreciate different styles. But there is one popular style of Bible class that irks me. It’s what I would call a “Pooling of Ignorance.” That’s the kind of Bible class where a scripture is read, and then everyone in the class shares their own varying opinions about the text.

It’s not that it’s a bad thing to hear different people’s thoughts. In fact, I love it when Christians engage in conversation about Scripture, even when the occasional incorrect interpretation is shared. But sooner or later we must remember that not all interpretations are equally valid.

Some people get defensive when they are reminded of this point. Some people presume that since none of us are perfect, that anybody’s idea is just as valid as anybody else’s idea. But this just isn’t the case. When the biblical authors wrote Scripture, they meant something. If we understand the text differently from how the author intended for us to understand the text, we’re not just understanding it differently; we’re misunderstanding it.

Other people get discouraged when they are reminded of their own imperfection. Don’t be. It’s okay to be mistaken every now and then. What’s not okay is to be satisfied with our ignorance. God doesn’t expect perfection, but he does expect us to be humble and honest in our study of scripture. He does expect us to continue to study to correct our errors. He does expect faithfulness. Don’t be discouraged by your own lack of omniscience (Better Bible Study Tip #11).

Go ahead. Invite others to share their opinions about the text. But don’t stop there. After hearing those suggestions, go back and study the text to figure out which interpretations are most faithful to the intentions of the original authors of scripture.

Better Bible Study Tip #37: Pay Attention to Font Style

Did you know that most Bible translations will occasionally change up the font style in order to give clues about the original text? For example, look at Genesis 1:2 in the New King James Version:

“The earth was without form, and void; and darkness wasa on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

Notice that the word “was” is written in italics, with a small superscript “a” inserted on the top right hand corner of the word. If you look the footnotes at the bottom of the page, you will see the following note:

1:2 aWords in italic type have been added for clarity. They are not found in the original Hebrew or Aramaic.”

So basically, translators were faced with a choice. Since the original text did not include the word “was” at this point, they could leave it out completely. This would be a more precise way to make the translation read “word-for-word”, but leaving out the verb would result in really poor English. The translators have resolved this difficulty by putting the word in italics and adding a footnote so that the reader can know that the word was isn’t in the original text. The KJV uses the same trick. Pretty cool!

Another trick used by translators involves the usage of capital letters. For example, notice how the ESV translates Psalm 110:1.

“The LORD says to my Lord:
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.'”

Notice how the first word “LORD” is written in all capital letters. This is a trick used by translators to tell the reader that the Hebrew word being translated is the divine name, YHWH (or “Yahweh”). This distinguishes the personal name of God from the generic Hebrew word for “lord” or “master”, the word adon.

In Psalm 110:1 both words are used. Since the first word “LORD” is in all capital letters, and the second word “Lord” isn’t, we can understand that David was saying “Yahweh says to my Master.” The NIV, NKJV, and KJV use this trick as well.

The NASB will occasionally begin a verse with a bold letter in order to indicate that a new paragraph is beginning, and will uses all capital letters to indicate when the authors are quoting from other scriptures.

Every translation is unique in how they use font styles. The best way to understand these clues is to pay attention to footnotes and to read the preface to your translation. So pay attention to font style. When font style changes, there’s a good chance the translators are giving you a clue about the original text.

Better Bible Study – Introduction

I’ve written a series of short articles filled with practical advice for better Bible study. The purpose of these articles is not to teach a particular Bible study method, nor to develop a hermeneutical system, but simply to offer several “tips” that hopefully will help others grow in their ability to study the Bible.

The truth is, I find myself frustrated with the shallowness of Bible discussions I’ve often encountered in churches. Often my frustration isn’t that churches are teaching error. In nearly every church I’ve been associated with, teaching the truth is of upmost importance, and for that I am thankful. But even still, it seems that Bible knowledge seems to be lacking in many congregations. When Christians don’t have their mind filled with Scripture, their minds become filled with the values of the culture they live in. That concerns me. Although there are certainly many notable exceptions, many Christians just don’t study their Bible on a regular basis.

The reason is simple. The Bible is a strange book, and at first glance, Bible study can be really boring. When we’re studying the parts of the Bible we are familiar with, we think “this is good, but I already know what this says.” For the parts of the Bible we aren’t as familiar with, we think “why am I wasting my time reading about Levitical purity laws or long genealogies?” We’re all busy people. It’s hard to continually invest time in something we’re easily bored with.

But I am a firm believer that Bible study isn’t supposed to be boring. The key to exciting and worthwhile Bible study is to learn to think carefully about what you are reading. Learning to think more deeply about the Bible is a skill that can be developed. We have to learn how to ask better questions. We have to learn how to detect and avoid flawed ideas. We can’t simply settle for explanations that aren’t comprehensive enough to satisfy a critical thinker. Learning to think deeply about the Bible is far more exciting and rewarding than simply trying to restart the habit of daily Bible reading. Careful thinking is what allows us to responsibly apply Scripture (even the obscure and strange Scriptures) to whatever circumstances we may be facing in our churches today, rather than simply giving the same prepackaged answers over and over.

These are simply Bible study tips. They are suggestions for things to try. They are words of caution for mistakes to avoid. If another Christian were to ask me for advice on how to become a better Bible student, these are the things I would say. Some tips will be more obvious than others. I hope that you will find at least some of these suggestions helpful as you try to get more out of your Bible study.

Better Bible Study Tip #36: Pay Attention to the Formatting

Pay attention to how your Bible translation formats the text. Sometimes translators will use formatting to give readers clues about how to read a particular text.

For example, notice how the ESV formats Genesis 1:26-27:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

Notice how verse 26 is formatted differently from verse 27. Verse 26 begins with an indention, but contains no other line breaks or indentions. The text is presented as simple prose like a historical narrative would be presented. The initial indention indicates that readers should read verse 26 as it’s own paragraph, or as a unit of thought.

Verse 27 is formatted with line breaks and indentions. The translators have formatted this part of the text as a poem, in which different lines are written in a parallel relationship to each other. The translators are giving you a clue that you should look for the poetic symmetry in the lines of verse 27.

Not every translation formats the text in the same way. For example, the KJV, NKVJ, and NASB usually start each verse on an new line. This makes it easier to reference specific verses. The ESV and NIV format prose into paragraph form. This makes it easier to follow the natural flow of thought in the original text. There’s not a right or a wrong way to format the text. The different formats have their own unique strengths (and weaknesses).

So yes, formatting makes a difference. Pay attention to how your Bible is formatted.

Better Bible Study Tip #35: Try To Ignore Chapter and Verse Divisions

Many people are unaware that the chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles are only about 500 years old. The Bible was not divided into chapters until the 13th century, and the Bible was not divided into verses until the 16th century. In some ways, chapter and verse divisions are very helpful, especially in helping us to quickly reference specific parts of scripture. But for better Bible study, it’s important to remember that these divisions aren’t original. In some ways, they can actually make Bible study more difficult.

For starters, many books of the Bible have a natural structure that is often overlooked. For example, Matthew doesn’t have 28 chapters, it has five natural sections. The book of Acts has six natural sections, each ending with the phrase “and the word of the Lord continued to spread and flourish”. Chapter divisions can sometimes distract us from the more natural divisions intended by the author.

If we aren’t careful, chapter and verse divisions can cause us to miss the author’s natural flow of thought. It’s easy to read to the end of a chapter and then use the chapter break as a good place to stop. But this isn’t always helpful. For example, its not uncommon to hear people use Romans 13 (where Paul says that governments do not bear the sword in vain) to show that Christians are allowed to bear the sword against evildoers, without acknowledging that God uses governments to accomplish the very thing Christians are forbidden from doing in Romans 12. If it weren’t for Paul’s thought being divided with a chapter division, perhaps less Christians would draw incorrect conclusions about this text.

Another problem caused by chapter and verse divisions is that it makes it all to easy to grasp onto random scriptures and to use them for our own purpose instead of considering the wider context. How often have you heard Philippians 4:13, Psalm 33:12, and others misused in social media memes without any consideration to their original context?

Although chapter and verse divisions continue to play an important role in helping people to interact with Scripture, for better Bible study it’s best to try to ignore these divisions. Try to pay attention to the original author’s natural flow of thought.

Better Bible Study Tip #34: Read or Watch Book Introductions

One helpful thing you can do before reading any book of the Bible is to try to form a tentative but informed idea about the content and historical context of the book. What was going on that caused the author to write the book? What was the author’s goal in writing the book? What is the attitude of the author? What are the main ideas he wants to communicate? Is there a flow or a structure for the material in the book? Finding the answers to these sort of questions can make it easier to track with the main themes and storyline of each book.

This is why I recommend reading (or watching) Bible book introductions. Many Bibles will contain short introductory essays before good books. These are often very short, yet they contain good information. It can also be helpful to consult the introduction section of a commentary. One of my favorite resources is the Bible Project book overview videos. These short videos provide a helpful visual of the books’ structure and main themes.

Always remember the information you learn from book introductions should be viewed as “tentative” until you are able to verify their information with your own study. So while book introductions are helpful, make sure to jot down your own brief notes as you study the book for yourself. What does the text itself reveal about the recipients? The author’s attitude? The specific occasion of the book? Never stop studying for your own answers. But when you are just getting started, book introductions can be very helpful.

One Piece of Misinformation Christians Must Stop Sharing

Life and death do not hang in the balance depending on whether we are correctly informed about healthcare. Christians must stop sharing this dangerous misinformation by acting like it does.

Some will surely be quick to object, “No, but life and death really do hang in the balance! Look at the data! People are dying! We must start listening to the experts!” Of course, this objection may sound slightly different depending on which side of the argument a person is on. Some will point to data that suggests one course of prevention and treatment. Others will point to data that suggests other courses of treatment and prevention. The two sides will fight tooth and nail, pointing to the data and research and charts that support their particular side and prove the other side as foolish. But one thing both sides usually agree on is that the argument is worth having, because, after all, it’s a matter of life and death.

Let’s put the charts and the research and the scholarly opinions aside just for a moment, and reconsider the words of Paul in Romans 8.

Life and Death in Romans 8

For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Romans 8:13

Read it again. Slowly. If Jesus is Lord, life and death do not hang in balance depending on whether or not we are looking at correct medical data. Life and death do not hang in the balance depending on whether or not we listen to the right experts. Life and death do not hang in the balance depending on whether we are informed or misinformed. Life and death hang in the balance depending on whether we live according to the flesh or live according to the Spirit.

For a better understanding of what Paul is saying, read the verse in context.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Romans 8:5-8

Paul contrasts two different ways of living. One is the way of the flesh, the other is the way of the Spirit. You can tell the difference between the two ways by what they think about. What are they focused on? What are they thinking about most of or all the time? Are they focused on the flesh? Do they continually dwell on the corruptible and mortal aspects of the world? Or are they focused on the Spirit?

To live focused on the flesh is to invite death itself, whereas to focus on the Spirit is to have life and peace. That’s Paul’s main point here. He explains it further in verses 7-8 when he says that those whose mind is set on the flesh are hostile to God. They are incapable of submitting to God’s law as long as the fleshly, corruptible, mortal aspects of this world are the things that capture their mind. They cannot please God.

But what about those whose minds are set on the Spirit?

You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Romans 8:9-13

Those who have the Spirit dwelling in them will be raised from the dead. Even though their bodies are doomed to die, the Spirit will give life to their mortal bodies. They will live.

The promise of the resurrection is the promise that we will be rescued. Our hope isn’t simply for something better after death. Our hope is to be saved from death itself.

Notice how Paul can alternate between “The Spirit in you” and “Christ in you.” They are the same thing. That is why, as Paul says back in verse 1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Keep Things in Perspective

Now, without losing sight of Paul’s inspired words in Romans 8, consider the current healthcare debates. What if we are deceived into listening to the wrong so-called “experts”? What if we pursue the wrong form of prevention or treatment? What if accidently end up misinformed? What if we foolishly reject life-saving medical advice? If Christ dwells in us, we will be rescued. Even though our bodies die, we will still be raised from the dead to live.

Consider the flip side. What if we are able to sort though all the information correctly? What if we do everything exactly right? What if we avoid sickness and death from the disease? We still die. It might be a few years later, in a nursing home, dying of natural causes, but we still die. When we die, the only thing that matters is whether or not we have lived according to the Spirit.

This is not to suggest that we should run towards death while ignoring the various data and expert opinions out there. But as we try our best to process the latest information and respond as wisely as possible, we must keep things in proper perspective. When we act like we can control tomorrow based on making right plans today, we are spreading dangerous misinformation (James 4:14). When act like we are still enslaved to the fear of death, as if the devil has not been destroyed, we are spreading dangerous misinformation (Hebrews 2:14-15). When we think of ourselves as wise, without maintaining good conduct, we are being “false to the truth” (James 3:13-18).

Ultimately, life and death do not hang in the balance depending on whether or not we are “right” in our response to this healthcare crisis. Ultimately, life and death hang in the balance depending on whether or not we have Christ and walk in step with His Spirit. Do not be distracted by all the death and disease. Do not set your mind on things of the flesh. Set your mind on the things of the Spirit, and you will live.

Better Bible Study Tip #33: Learn Some Basics About Translation Philosophies

The Bible was originally written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The problem is, most of us don’t know how to read those languages. The simplest solution to this problem is to pick a good translation of the Bible. Most people will simply pick the translation they are most familiar with, or they will pick out a translation because they find it easy to read. Although familiar translations may be easier to memorize, and readability is certainly important, for better Bible study, it is good to learn some basics about translation philosphies.

Translation is not always as simple as picking an English equivalent to words in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. There’s more to understanding what is being communicated than simply being able to look up words in a dictionary.

In order to illustrate this point, imagine you were asked to translate the following sentence into a foreign language: “The running back for the Crimson Tide has really been piling up the yards.” We could translate the sentence word-for-word into another language, but unless the reader had some basic cultural understanding about the game of college football, the sentence would end up sounding like nonsense. The reader would have to do a little bit of homework about SEC football before they could understand our translation. Another solution would be to try to rewrite the phrase so that someone from a different culture could understand the main idea without having to do extra work.

Bible translators run into these kinds of problems all the time. One approach to translating the Bible is to translate it “word for word”. Translators call this “formal equivalence.” This goal of this translation philosophy is to account for every word in the original language with an English word as much as possible. The problem with this style of translation is that the translation can sometimes end up sounding awkward.

Another approach is called “dynamic equivalence” or “functional equivalence.” This approach tries to determine what the original phrase meant, and then uses whatever words necessary to communicate that meaning to English readers. There is not as much emphasis on accounting for each individual word. The result is usually a more readable translation.

So which translation philosophy is best? On one hand, there’s a lot to be said for readability. The Bible was, after all, written in common, everyday language (see Bible Study Tip #31). But it’s also important to remember that God inspired the original words of Scripture. Details matter. Sometimes individual words can make a big difference (see Bible Study Tip #14).

In order to translate from one language to another, it is necessary to come to some conclusions about what the original words mean and how to best convey that meaning to the audience. This introduces certain degree of human understanding into all translations. One big advantage of formal equivalent translations is that it limits how much the translator’s own ideas can be introduced into the translation. Yes, a formal equivalence translation may sound more clunky at times, but there are plenty of resources available to help us to understand these difficult words and phrases.

Dynamic equivalence translations aren’t bad. They can be good, especially if you’re just wanting to causally read large sections of scripture to get the big picture (Bible Study Tip #13). But when we use them we need to be aware that what we are reading may or may not accurately represent the original text. For deeper studies, it’s important to have a good word-for-word translation.

If you want to know what kind of translation philosophy is being used, read the preface. Although most popular translations use a mixture of the two main philosophies, the King James Version, New King James Version, New American Standard, and English Standard Versions all lean more towards formal equivalence, while the New International Version, and the New Living Translation lean more towards dynamic equivalence. There’s also paraphrases, such as The Living Bible and The Message. Paraphrases aren’t actually translations at all. Paraphrases begin with an English translation, and then reword the translation into the most readable English possible. I don’t usually recommend paraphrases, unless we’re only looking to consult them similar to how we would use a commentary.

Translations are like golf clubs. Different translations are better for different purposes. But for better Bible study, it’s good to be familiar with the translation philosophy being used by your particular translation.

Better Bible Study Tip #32: Learn Some Basics About Bible Manuscripts

A good translation should, as much as possible, attempt to represent the original wording as it left the original author’s hand. One problem, however, is that the Bible isn’t like the Declaration of Independence, where we can go back and look at the original document. No “originals” have been preserved. What we do have are thousands of handwritten copies (manuscripts).

What’s incredible is that these copies are almost completely identical with one another. Although there are differences between manuscripts, a vast majority of the time these differences are very minor alterations. For example, sometimes manuscripts will have different spellings of a name, or perhaps will contain “scribal notes” that were likely added to clarify passages that might have been confusing. These differences between manuscripts are called “variants.” In almost every case, textual variants are easily explained, and they almost never make any significant impact on the meaning of the text. The striking degree of similarity between the manuscripts gives scholars a high degree of confidence regarding the original wording of the text.

But there are some textual variants that are more difficult to solve. That’s why most translations will offer footnotes that say “Some manuscripts add…” or “Some manuscripts do not have…”. Pay attention to those footnotes. They can help you to be aware of those places where scholars aren’t as certain about the original text.

When scholars try to determine the original wording, there are a few key pieces of evidence they consider. Most scholars will tend to give more weight to older manuscripts (although sometimes this will be debated). In the Old Testament this often comes down to a choice between the Masoretic Text (primarily medieval era copies of the Hebrew text) and manuscripts of the Greek Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament that dates all the way back to 250-150 BC!). The Masoretic text is newer, yet it contains the original language. The Septuagint is older, so although it is a translation, it may be based on even older and more original Hebrew texts. So when differences occur between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, which is more reliable? This is sometimes a tricky question to answer and scholars love to debate this sort of thing.

Sometimes textual problems can be solved simply by using logic. Where variants exist, usually the variant that most logically explains how all the others came about is usually presumed to be original. For example, in Mark 1:2 the NKJV reads “As it is written in the prophets“, while the ESV (following different manuscripts) reads “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet.” What follows is a quotation that combines Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. If the original text read “Isaiah the prophet”, it would be easy to explain why a later scribe would attempt to “correct” the text to simply read “the prophets”. But if the original text read “the prophets”, it would be more difficult to explain why a scribe would specify “Isaiah”. So while we may not be 100% certain which wording is original, it’s probably good guesswork to assume that Mark originally referred to Isaiah (which makes sense, since Isaiah is the more significant of the prophets he quotes). But, as with most all textual variants, it makes little to no difference as to the overall meaning of the text.

Since we want to know what the original author wrote, it is an incredible blessing to know that there are so many manuscripts standing behind our translations. Where uncertainty exists, it’s good to know why. And in all the other places, where our Bible doesn’t include those footnotes, it’s very reassuring to know that there is little to no uncertainty that we do in fact have the original words of the author.