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.

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.

Better Bible Study Tip #3: Don’t Just Read – Think

It should go without saying that regular Bible reading is a great practice for any Christian. But at the same time, Bible reading is not the same thing as Bible comprehension. In order to comprehend what we are reading, we have to think about it.

Most of us have looked over our tax returns before. But to really understand how a tax return works, you have to think about it. You have to read slowly, and think “What does this number mean?” “Where did we pull this number from?” “What numbers are being added up here?” etc.

It would be easy for us to open up our church bulletin and read the sentence “Please pray for those who are sick of this congregation.” But to really comprehend the sentence, and it’s humor, you have to reread it slowly and think about it.

It would be one thing to read through Acts 2. But it would be another thing to really think about Peter’s sermon. What was it about Peter’s sermon that causes people to be cut to the heart? Where did each of his scripture references come from? Why did he quote from those particular scriptures? What was the point he was making from those scriptures? What does the word “repent” mean? What does the word “baptize” mean? How is repentance and baptism connected to forgiveness of sins? What is the gift of the Holy Spirit? Why is this important? etc.

Don’t just read your Bible. Think about it.

I will meditate on your precepts,
And fix my eyes on your ways.

Psalm 119:15

Better Bible Study Tip #2: Don’t Just Read – Memorize

I know a lot of people cringe at the thought of memorizing scripture. “It’s hard.” “It’s boring”. “I have access to my Bible on my phone 24/7, so what’s the point?” But hear me out.

Yes, Bible memory takes work. You have to put in the time to repeat verses to yourself over, and over, and over, and over. But the beauty of Bible memorization is found in that continual repetition.

Consider what is written in Psalm 1:

Blessed is the man,
Who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

Psalm 1:1-3

Rather than filling his mind with the unwholesome thoughts of ungodly people, the blessed man meditates God’s law “day and night.”

When you repeat scripture to yourself, there’s a good chance that you will notice something during the 20th repetition that you missed during the 3rd or 4th repetitions.

When you repeat scripture to yourself, it literally fills your mind with those scriptures, which in turn can to transform your mind (Rom. 12:2).

When you repeat scripture to yourself, it makes it easier to recall those scriptures during times when they are helpful, such as times of temptation (Mt. 4:1-11), times of teaching (Mt. 12:3-7), and times of prayer (Mt. 27:46).

Don’t settle for just memorizing a verse here or there. My three year old can do that. Easy Bible memory is boring Bible memory. Do something more challenging. Memorize a whole paragraph. Memorize a whole chapter. Memorized a whole section. Memorize a whole book. The bigger the section is, the longer it will take you to memorize it, and the more you will have to repeat it to yourself. Plus, you will end up grasping the context better, which will make the process far more interesting and beneficial.

Still cringe at the idea of Bible memory? Do you think “I’m just not good at memorization”? Here’s an alternative suggestion that can yield many of the same results. Pick a book of the Bible and read it cover to cover thirty times in a row. Yes, thirty times. Chances are, by the time you finish, you will feel like you are pretty close to having it memorized. You will still get the benefits of meditation, repetition, and you will become far more familiar with the book.

Yes, it will take some time, but all good Bible study takes effort. Having a Bible app conveniently on your phone is helpful, but having scripture engrained into your mind is even better.

Better Bible Study Tip #1: Ask The Hard Questions

The Bible is not just a normal book. It is the collection of God’s inspired writings. It is the authoritative source for the truths we hold and shows us which errors we should deny.

And yet the world is filled with people who oppose the Bible, criticize the Bible, and try to undermine it’s reliability. These Bible critics often raise hard questions. “Why does God command genocide of the Canaanites? How can we say that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, when the book of Genesis tells of things that happened long before his birth, and the book of Deuteronomy tells of things that happened after his death? Did the author of Genesis actually intend to write historical facts, or did he intend it to be understood as allegory? Did Isaiah really write the whole book of Isaiah? Did Daniel really write Daniel? Did Paul really write the letters we traditionally ascribe to him? Why do the four gospels seem to contradict themselves at several points? Didn’t the Biblical authors simply reflect the values of their cultures? Why should we view their writings as authoritative? How did we end up with these specific 66 books? How do we know these books are inspired, and others aren’t? How do we know the Bible hasn’t been corrupted over time? Why do different manuscripts read differently from each other?”

The questions go on and on. Of course some questions are easier to respond to than others. But sometimes, we come across some really good questions. Sometimes WE might even be the ones who think of the hard questions.

In a world filled with Bible deniers and Bible critics, sometimes hard questions can make us flinch. Is it okay to question the Bible? What if I find a hard question, and I can’t find a satisfactory answer? What if my question causes me to stumble in my faith?

When we start to question the process of asking questions, we need to remember something very important: questioning the Bible is not wrong. If there is a problem with questioning the Bible, the problem lies not in the questioning, but in the attitude of the questioner.

God welcomes sincere questions. Gideon asked an angel, “If the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us?” (Judg. 6:13). Mary, the mother of Jesus, asked how it would be possible for her to give birth to a child since she was a virgin (Lk. 1.34). Good questions deserve to be asked.

When Paul entered the Jewish synagogues, he “reasoned” with the people from the scriptures (Acts 17:2). Reasoning includes honest dialogue with people who ask hard questions. The Christians in Berea were praised because they were eagerly “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). That means they were going to the scriptures with questions.

The Bible has been fulfilling its role as God’s inspired word for thousands of years. The Bible has faced numerous critics who have asked the most difficult questions man can think of. And yet the Bible is still here. It hasn’t gone away. Truth is not going away. Truth is truth. Truth isn’t afraid of questions. Those who love truth should embrace the process of asking questions.

Of course it can be possible to question the Bible in an unhealthy way. Sometimes questions are asked, not because the questioners are honestly seeking to learn truth, but rather because they have the goal of undermining God’s authority. This is what Satan did with his question when he asked Eve “Did God really say that?” (Gen. 3:1). Sometimes questions are asked simply because people love stirring up controversy. That’s also an unhealthy approach to questions (1 Tim. 6:3-4). But the problem in unhealthy questions is not in the questions themselves, but rather in the attitude of the questioner.

The Bible is God’s word. There is no reason for us to embrace irrational beliefs. Rational faith necessitates honest questions and rational answers. Approaching Scripture without asking the hard questions does not lead to a rational understanding of scripture. Intellectual laziness is not a virtue. So go ahead. Ask hard questions. The Bible can take it.

Every word of God proves true;
He is a shield to those who take refuge in him.

Proverbs 30:5