Better Bible Study Tip #66: Don’t Second Guess God’s Choice in Inspiration

One of the reasons why some people find the Bible difficult is because it doesn’t clearly answer all of their doctrinal questions, or articulate their beliefs as plainly as they wish it would. Sometimes this can lead to the bad habits of trying to pull more out of a text than what the text actually teaches, or to pull proof texts away from their contexts in an effort to explain a particular position more clearly.

We need to trust God’s wisdom in inspiring the text the way he did. For instance, if God wanted to inspire a text the show the importance of infant baptism, he could have easily included that. If God wanted to more precisely answer all of your questions about the Holy Spirit, or about the continuation or secession of miracles, he could have inspired someone to explain that more clearly. If God wanted to inspire authors of later generations to write in a way that would more clearly answer every question a modern Christian might raise, he could have done that.

Even though God could have given us a different Bible, he didn’t. For whatever reason, he choose to inspire the particular writers that he did, at the particular time that they wrote. For whatever reason, he chose to address the particular questions that the Bible deals with, teach the particular doctrines that the Bible teaches, and teach them with the precise words that he chose to teach them with. If the Bible is silent on a particular subject, God can be credited with that decision as well.

It was God who inspired scripture. It was God who selected and prepared the particular writers that he chose to inspire. It was God who gave us the Bible as it is, with the words it contains. He did not inspire a different text. God is not incompetent.

As Paul puts it in 2 Timothy 3:16-17,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

The Bible, as it is, has a divine origin. The Bible, as it is, is sufficient. For this reason we should be extra careful to keep man made catechisms, creeds, statements of belief, and church traditions in proper perspective. If those creeds or traditions teach anything less than what the Bible teaches, they don’t say enough. If those creeds or traditions include anything more than what the Bible teaches, they may say too much. If those creeds or traditions are precisely the same as what is revealed in inspired scripture, they are redundant.

This is not to suggest that it is inappropriate for uninspired teachers to try to explain the text using their uninspired words, or for churches to write a statement of beliefs, or for traditions to be formed and kept. But we must remember that while God could have inspired other words to be included in the Bible, for whatever reason he didn’t. “Other words” are “other words.” They are not inspired. They do not originate with God.

If we can’t explain a particular belief without using the inspired words of scripture, and without using proof texts ripped from their original context, perhaps we should reexamine why we hold that particular belief. Or at they very least, we should reexamine why we feel like it needs to be explained in a way that is different from how the Bible explains it.

When we try to teach more or less than what the Bible teaches, we are disrespecting God’s choice in inspiration. We must honor God’s wise choice to inspire scripture the the time, place, and way that he did.

Better Bible Study Tip #64: Listen to Bible Themed Podcasts

I’ve been a podcast listener for several years now. Although I enjoy listening to all kinds of podcasts (business, leadership, Star Wars, economics, history, sports, etc), I spend most of my time listening to Bible study themed podcasts. I initially started listening to podcasts simply because they are more entertaining than listening to the same 20 songs over and over on the radio. But the more I’ve listened to podcasts, the more I’ve noticed that listening to podcasts can actually improve your Bible study.

We’re all busy people. Even the most disciplined Bible student will often feel like they just don’t have enough time to study as much as they should. The beauty of listening to podcasts is that you can listen on demand. You can play a podcast while you are driving, exercising, or cleaning. That means you can listen to podcasts without having to take any additional time out of your day!

Another reason I recommend listening to podcasts is because you can listen to discussions on almost any niche topic you can think of. Whether you are interested in apologetics, ancient near eastern culture, the Christian and finances, Christians leadership, book by book exegesis, or teaching children’s bible classes, there are podcasts out there focused specifically on that specific topic! I will usually have four or five different podcasts that I listen to regularly, plus several more that I will listen to occasionally whenever they post an episode that looks interesting.

What’s even better is that the the endless content of podcasts is completely free. With some podcasts you can actually learn more about a subject matter than you would if you attended a college class. I’ve read that if you drive 12,000 miles in a year, in three years time, if you listen to podcasts, it is the equivalent of two years worth of college classes. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but I do know that you can learn quite a bit from podcasts and it’s way cheaper than paying thousands in college tuition.

One other hidden gem is that many podcasts will refer listeners back to their website or show-notes page, where they have additional resources listed. It may not seem like much, but I’ve stumbled across some really interesting articles and book recommendations simply from visiting some podcast show-notes pages.

Better Bible Study Tip #3 was “Don’t Just Read – Think“. Listening to podcasts will give you plenty of things to think about. Of course, we should always listen critically. As with any other media used for teaching, some podcasts are better than others. The only way to critically decipher between good teaching and false teaching is to spend plenty of time studying the inspired text of scripture itself. For this reason, listening to podcasts should be viewed as supplement to Bible study, and should NEVER be treated as a replacement for Bible study.

Podcasts have been a blessing to my Bible study, and I’m sure they can help you gain some additional insights as well. It’s simple to start. Using a podcast app, just search for whatever topic you want to learn about, and then start listening. If you don’t like what you find, just search try something else. If you find a good one, hit subscribe as keep listening. You might also try asking for recommendations from Christian friends. If you haven’t started listening to Bible themed podcasts, I highly encourage you to do so.

Better Bible Study Tip#63: Download and Use Bible Study Software

Back in the 1900’s, Bible students used to have to invest in several reference works, such as a concordance, a Bible dictionary, a lexicon, and a Bible atlas. But unless you still use a landline phone and don’t use the internet, I suggest you download some Bible study software.

Bible study software makes it quick and easy to look up all kinds of helpful information. Instead of looking up words in a lexicon, you can simply click on a word to see it’s Hebrew or Greek definition. Instead of using a concordance, you can do a quick search for a word or a phrase to see where else it appears. You can quickly analyze the text of a book or a chapter to see how frequently different words appear. You can easily compare translations, add study notes, and download commentaries. Bible study software companies usually have huge libraries of resources available, many of which are many are free.

Bible study software is all about making Bible research quicker and easier so that you can accomplish more in less time. E-sword, Logos, and Accordance are some of the more popular Bible study programs. For Better Bible study, download and use Bible study software.

Better Bible Study Tip #62: Explore the World of Commentaries

Every so often someone will ask me what set of commentaries I recommend. I never quite know how to answer that question. Different commentaries are good for different purposes. It’s kind of like a golfer asking which golf club he should use next; it depends on where he is on the golf course. If he’s driving, I’m going to recommend one club. If he’s putting, I’m going to recommend another club. If he’s in the sand trap, I’m going to recommend another club.

Some commentaries are written on a popular level, while others are written on a scholarly level. Some commentaries focus on exegesis, while others focus on application. Some commentaries are based on the English text, while others are based on the Hebrew or Greek text (Note: you can use most commentaries based on the Greek or Hebrew text, even if you don’t know Greek or Hebrew. You will find that you can usually just read around the Greek and Hebrew with minimal loss). Some commentaries do a good job developing the author’s particular viewpoint, while others try to provide an overview of different viewpoints. Different commentaries have different strengths.

For better Bible study, spend time discovering the world of commentaries. Don’t get stuck on just one set. Commentaries can be expensive, but if you have a church library you can save money by borrowing some of theirs. Many older commentaries are also available online for free, or for download using Bible study software. Sometimes discovering commentaries is like searching for gold. It takes time to search, but if you spend enough time sifting through various commentaries, you will eventually stumble across some incredible “nuggets” of wisdom.

Proverbs 14:11 reminds us that “in the abundance of counselors there is safety”. Discovering the world of commentaries can provide safety as well. Sometimes commentators will disagree with each other. Sometimes they will correct or balance out each other’s viewpoints.

Remember, it is important not to begin your Bible study with a commentary. You should only go to commentaries after you have done you own work (Bible Study Tip #60). If you’ve done your own exegesis well, you will find that the better commentaries more often than not will end up drawing the same conclusions. At the same time, if you are in the practice of discovering new commentaries, you may occasionally discover some compelling arguments to consider a different point of view. It’s always a good thing when we give ourselves the opportunity to correct errors in our own understanding. One way to do this is to do your own study first, and then spend time exploring the world of commentaries.

Better Bible Study Tip #60: Don’t Open a Commentary Until After You Have Studied

I love collecting good resources to help me in my Bible study. My collection of commentaries grows every year. It’s not uncommon for me to read something in a commentary that really helps me to gain additional clarity about a particular Scripture.

Commentaries are an important resource for serious Bible students, but they are also one of the most misused Bible study tools. Beware about using commentaries as a crutch for lazy Bible study. If you ever find yourself skipping the hard process of meditating on the text, and skipping straight to consulting your favorite commentary, you are doing it wrong. The Lord gave the church teachers for a reason (Eph. 4:11), but we should also follow the example of the Bereans who “examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

Maybe you’ve been led to believe that you’re not smart enough to understand Scripture on your own, without significant help from Bible teachers. Although it is true that there can be some things in scripture that are hard to understand (even Peter admitted this much! 2 Peter 3:16), we should also remember that God intended for Scripture to be studied by everyone, young and old. The key to good Bible study is meditating on the text day and night (Psalm 1:1-3).

My point is not that we shouldn’t consult commentaries in our study. But before pulling your favorite commentary off the shelf, force yourself to think hard about the text of Scripture alone. Consider your Bible study methods. Do you spend more time focusing on the text of the Bible, or on the words of uninspired writers? When we are overly dependent on commentaries, a subtle shift takes place from living on “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4) to living by the words of Bible teachers.

Once you have done the hard work of thinking seriously about the text itself, go ahead and open a commentary. You will be in a better position to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s arguments. You may even come across some new observations have haven’t thought of before. There is no doubt that we can learn a lot from commentaries written by good Bible teachers. But remember that there is no substitute for thinking when it comes to Bible study.

Better Bible Study Tip #59: Use the “Y’all Version”

In “proper” English, the word “you” can be used to refer to one person or to many. For example, I could tell my wife “I love you”, or at a concert a performer could yell to the crowd, “I hope you are ready for a great show tonight!”. But those of us who are from the south know better than to leave our “you” ambiguous. Even though it might make our middle school English teacher cringe, we use the word “y’all” whenever we address groups of people.

My Paw Paw used to joke that Paul must have been a southerner, because Paul liked to say “y’all” a lot. He’s right. The Greek language is similar to southern English in that they had a separate word for the plural “you”. The problem is, our English translations always use correct English grammar. That’s why our Bibles always contain the word “you” even when the Greek contains the plural “y’all.”

Y’all need to check out the “y’all version” Bible. Go ahead and google it. The “y’all version” is a free online Bible that converts the word “you” into “y’all” every time the plural word is used in the original Hebrew or Greek. At first it might sound funny when Jesus says to his disciples “Y’all’s Father knows y’all need before y’all ask Him. Y’all should pray, then, in this way.” But sometimes seeing that second person plural actually makes a big difference in how we understand the text.

Consider Paul’s teaching about the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 3:16. The ESV reads, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in you.” What does that mean? I’ve heard this text used to defend the sanctity of each individual human life, or to teach that the Holy Spirit dwells in each person individually. But if we consult the “y’all version” we will notice that Paul is actually saying something else. The sentence actually reads “Do y’all no know that y’all are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in y’all?”

Do y’all see the difference in the meaning? In the context, Paul is addressing divisions in the Corinthian church. His point is that divisions in the church oppose the oneness of God’s Spirit. Since “y’all” are collectively God’s temple, “y’all” need to start acting like it.

In our individualistic western culture, reading “you” instead of “y’all” can actually reinforce the “me first” attitude instead of challenging it. Using the “y’all version” can remind us that the Bible was not addressed to us as isolated individuals. It was addressed to “us” as communities of God’s people. For better Bible study, y’all should start using the “Y’all Version.”

Better Bible Study Tip #58: Use the NET Bible

I stumbled upon the NET Bible only two or three years ago, but it has been a game changer for me. It has quickly become one of my most frequently consulted Bible study tools. Not only is it really helpful, but it’s also available online for free. Go ahead and google it.

What makes the NET Bible so special is not the translation itself (which is fine, but not my favorite either). What makes the NET Bible so useful are the incredibly helpful footnotes. Most study Bibles will have little letters or numbers scattered throughout the text that will direct you to a small note at the bottom of the page. Most footnotes will offer something useful, such as an alternative translation, or a note about the manuscripts or something along those lines. Now imagine those study Bible footnotes on steroids, and you’ve got the NET Bible.

The NET Bible contains over 60,000 translation footnotes, on everything from alternative translation possibilities, manuscript differences, as well as commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of different translation possibilities. These aren’t short footnotes either, as some are offer multiple paragraphs of explanation. if you’ve ever wondered why two different translations translate a verse differently, look it up in the NET. If you’ve ever wondered why some translations omit phrases or even entire verses, look it up in the NET. The NET will explain which manuscripts have the phrase, and which ones don’t. It will explain the difficulties involved in figuring out which variant is original. It will explain all the different ways the verse could be translated, as well as which translations are more likely than others, and why.

Imagine having a translation committee next door, where you could just pop your head in and ask about any verse at any time. That’s pretty much what you get with the NET Bible. If you are a regular person, who doesn’t know much about Hebrew or Greek, the NET Bible can be a great way to wrap your mind around most all of the major translation issues. If you haven’t used it before, I highly recommend checking it out.

Better Bible Study Tip #57: Compare Different Translations

The other day in Bible class I read aloud from Joshua 1:8:

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous and have good success.

Joshua 1:8, ESV

A young lady in the class spoke up, “My Bible doesn’t say be careful. It says observe.” She then read the same verse from the New King James Version.

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

Joshua 1:8, NKJV

Whenever we compare multiple translations, we will notice little differences like this all over the place. Translation isn’t an precise science. One group of translators think the Hebrew word is most similar to the English word “observe”, while other translators feel that “be careful” a better representation. This is a very small difference, but it is helpful to notice. It suggest that neither “observe” nor “be careful” are perfect representation of the original Hebrew word. Most likely the Hebrew word shares meaning with both English words, as in “careful observation.”

This is just one small example of how comparing multiple translations can give us a better feel for the original text. Sometimes the differences between translations are small, such as in Joshua 1:8. Other times the differences are more significant. Notice how the ESV and the NKJV translate Romans 8:1.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Romans 8:1, ESV

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:1, NKJV

That’s a big difference! The NKJV is twice as long, and seems to suggest that the reason there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus is because they are not walking according to the Spirit the way they should. Why does the ESV leave this part of the verse out? (Or could it be that the NKJV added this part of the verse for some reason?) We need to do a little bit of digging to find out.

If you had only read Romans 8:1 in one translation, you might not even notice the need for extra research here. But since you compared translations, now you know. That’s why it is important to compare different translations.

Better Bible Study Tip #56: Avoid Conclusions that Overstate the Evidence

Several of these Bible study tips have focused on the need for clear thinking and good logic when it comes to our Bible study. This is critically important, and unfortunately, it is often overlooked.

If we are in a regular routine of studying our Bible, we will occasionally make some interesting observations that maybe we haven’t noticed before. But before drawing a conclusion from our observations, we need to make sure we’re not using poor logic to overstate the evidence.

Here’s some examples:

  • In the Old Testament, God’s people used instrumental music in his worship to God, therefore God is pleased when Christians use instruments in their worship.
  • Phillip had four daughters who prophesied, therefore the Bible endorses women teaching men in a the public assembly.
  • Jesus praised a centurion for his faith, therefore Christians can join the military and kill their enemies during time of war.

Each of these statements begin with an accurate biblical observation, and then suggest a conclusion that extends beyond what the text actually states. Yes, we see numerous examples of God’s people worshiping with instrumental music in the Old Testament, but we also have to remember that they didn’t choose to worship with instruments out of personal preference. Instrumental music was specifically prescribed by God (for example, 2 Chron. 29:25). They were concerned with worshipping God according to how they had been commanded to worship him, and we should worship with that same concern. The question is, how are God’s people under the new covenant expected to worship?

Yes, Philip had four daughters who prophesied. But the text never specified how they went about doing this, or in what setting they shared their prophesies. Simply observing that women prophesied doesn’t automatically lead to the conclusion that there are no guidelines to the roles filled by men and women in worship (see 1 Tim. 2:12). If we are going to draw that conclusion, we must develop a much stronger argument than simply pointing to Phillips daughters.

Yes, Jesus praised a centurion for his faith without adding one word of disapproval about his role in the military. But he also didn’t voice any words of approval of the wicked and idolatrous actions that a Roman military leader would be expected to fill. Jesus frequently interacted with sinners without commending on whether or not he approved of their sin. In John 4:16-18 Jesus spoke with a Samaritan woman who had been divorced five times and was living with a man she wasn’t married to. Jesus never rebuked her or told her to leave the man she was living with. Does this mean that Jesus approved of her marriages, divorces, and remarriages? Certainly not!

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t good questions that can be raised about these issues and others. I’m suggesting that when studying various issues, we need to be careful not to make a quick observation from the text, and then draw conclusions that overstate the evidence. When we study scripture, we will see things in the text. Every conclusion we draw should have a direct line back to the text. If it doesn’t, there is a very real possibility that our thinking could extend beyond the text.

Better Bible Study Tip #55: Try Expressing Your Beliefs in Writing

Have you ever had difficulty expressing what you mean with clarity? Try writing. Bible study tip #19 was to always study with a pen in hand. Try grabbing that pen and putting your conclusions into words. The process of choosing the right words forces you think.

For example, in Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus says,

It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

With your pen you could write that you believe that a man should not divorce his wife except on the ground of sexual immorality. But what exactly does that mean?

Do you mean to say that you believe that there are no other times when divorce is permitted? Or do you mean that there are no other times when remarriage is permitted? If divorce could be permitted on other grounds, how could it be justified in light of Jesus’s words? If divorce could not be permitted on other grounds, what should a Christian do in situations that involve abuse or other extreme situations? What exactly do you think Jesus means by sexual immorality? Is he only referring to sexual intercourse? Or, based on what he says in the previous verses, can it also include lust? Maybe Jesus isn’t trying to lay down a hard and fast rule, but just teaching a general principle, or perhaps an ideal we should strive for? What if a person is previously divorced and remarried before they become a Christian? Is the new “spouse” even a spouse at all? If so, in what sense could remarriage be adultery? If not, is a Christian required to divorce their new “spouse” in order to be faithful to Jesus’s teaching? Is that how Jesus would have intended for his teaching to be applied, or was he making another point entirely? How certain are you about your conclusions? What if another Christians draws slightly different conclusions? Is that permissible? Why or why not?

Write out your questions. Write out your answers. Write out what you are certain about. Write out what you are uncertain about. Write out what you believe the text teaches. Write out what you do not believe the text teaches. Practice nuancing your beliefs appropriately. Try writing. It sharpens your thinking.