Better Bible Study Tip #49: Most Scriptures Don’t Have Three Points

Yes preachers, this one is intended for you. One of the most popular ways to organize a sermon is to divide it into into three main points. Some preachers have a special talent of being able to craft sermons where every point begins with the same letter. Although I’ve never been very good at alliteration, I have found that there’s something about crafting “three main points” that makes sermon preparation easier.

But the thing is, most texts don’t have three main points. There is a difference between talking about the text and teaching the text. When our focus is on delivering a three point sermon, we can easily find ourselves squeezing the text into our three points. By the time we end up delivering the sermon, we end up delivering what is essentially a collection of our thoughts about the text rather than a lesson on the text itself.

When we’re given the opportunity to teach the Bible, our aim is to deliver the same thoughts that were first delivered by the original author. Our first job is to understand the flow and development of what was delivered in the text itself. Once we understand what the text is saying and how the text is saying it, our next job is to figure out the most effective way to communicate those same thoughts to our audience.

Sometimes the Biblical author may make three supporting observations that lead up to their main point. In those situations, the lesson may translate quite well into a three point sermon. But in other places, the author may make eight or nine observations leading to the main point. Or he may make one point that leads to a second, that leads to a third, that leads to a fourth. Or you may find yourself teaching a section of poetry, where the author is more interested in painting a series of word pictures, and less interested in developing a structured argument. Or the text may be designed to be told as a story without any outline at all.

Preaching a sermon without three main points can be difficult. It requires a lot of work to really understand how a text works. But better Bible study requires extra effort. Keep God’s words front and center, and keep your own thoughts about the text out of it. Let the text drive your sermon. Don’t let your sermon drive your approach to the text.

Better Bible Study Tip #48: Be Disciplined In Your Thinking

Beliefs and opinions are formed by more than simply accumulating raw data. Emotions, attitudes, values, and worldviews all impact the way we think. They impact the way we process raw facts into a meaningful perception of what we think is true. That’s why it’s important that we are disciplined in every aspect of our thinking. We need to make sure we examine our attitudes, our emotions, our values, our worldview, our loyalties, and of course, we need to make sure we are informed by good data. Incorrect values will lead errors in how we process correct data. Incorrect data will lead to errors in conclusions we draw, which will in turn reinforce incorrect values. As we examine our own beliefs, it’s good to try to distinguish between beliefs that are based on good data, and those that are mostly driven by our feelings and loyalties.

When it comes to Bible study, the text itself is the raw data. For better Bible study, we need to carefully distinguish between exegesis and speculation. It can be fun to have speculate about things we don’t fully understand. It can be fun to speculate about angels and demons, or what will happen after Jesus returns. But if our beliefs are driven by speculative thoughts, rather than by the text itself, there’s a good chance that we will end up drawing some wrong conclusions.

It’s also important to examine our own attitudes and loyalties. People who are well versed in scripture often end up with incorrect beliefs, especially when their loyalties lie with a particular sect, denomination, or political party. Our loyalty must be to Christ and his church above any other group. We must strive to live with the same kind of attitudes and values that we see in Christ himself.

For better Bible study, be disciplined in your thinking. Examine yourself to make sure your loyalties are in the right place, and examine your beliefs to make sure they are founded upon good data, that is, upon the text itself.

Better Bible Study Tip #47: It’s Okay To Be Uncertain About The Meaning of a Passage

It’s important to understand the Bible correctly. For that reason, it can sometimes feel unnerving to be uncertain about the meaning of a passage. If you’ve ever felt uneasy about your own grasp of scripture, you’re not alone. None of us are omniscient (Better Bible Study Tip #11).

In fact, feeling uncertain about the meaning of a passage is sometimes a good thing. It means you understand that you have more to learn. If you never felt uncertain about your own understanding, that would imply that you think you have it all figured out. Are we really okay with that level of arrogance?

Yes, it’s important to understand the Bible correctly. We never want to be satisfied with our own ignorance. We should continue to do the hard work of continual Bible study. But if we don’t understand a passage with certainty, we can still faithfully apply what we are able to grasp. The Bible is usually quite clear when it comes to basic virtues we should practice and basic vices we should avoid. As long as we are being faithful and humble in our study, and as long as we are striving to obey the very best we can, it’s okay to be uncertain about the meaning of a passage.

Better Bible Study Tip #45: Don’t Ignore Weird or Difficult Passages

We all understand that it’s important to apply our personal Bible study to our lives. There are some passages of Scripture that have such a clear and transparent meaning that it makes practical application easy. But sometimes it’s not immediately clear what a passage means or how it should be applied.

At other times, fear of getting an interpretation wrong encourages Bible students to avoid difficult passages. What if, as a result studying a difficult scripture, we discover that we have been wrong on a particular subject? What if we discover we’re wrong on a deeply held belief? What if studying a difficult scripture ends up undermining our entire doctrinal worldview?

For these reasons, it can be tempting to avoid the study of difficult or strange passages. Some passages are hard to explain, and they are difficult to apply. If we currently hold an incorrect belief, there will surely be some passages that just won’t make much sense given our current understanding.

Can I be frank for a moment? If we think that the only “relevant” passages are those that are easily applied after only a surface level reading, this is a sign of lazy Bible study. “Study” is a verb (Bible Study Tip #17). It requires work. It requires effort. It might require that your rearrange your schedule to make more time for study. It might require that you read books, research the opinions of others, reread the text multiple times, and have long conversations about the text with Christian friends. It might require that you wrestle with observations that challenge previously held opinions. Sometimes it may take weeks, months, or even longer to feel like you have a good handle on a passage, but that shouldn’t matter.

If it’s inspired scripture, it’s worthy of attention. In many instances, the strange and difficult passages of scripture are part of greater themes and concepts that point to Christ. From my experience, if it’s in the Bible, it’s important. If it’s in the Bible and it seems strange or difficult, it’s in a sense even more important, because there’s a good chance you are misunderstanding something. There is a purpose for every passage in the Bible. It is our job to discover what it is.

Better Bible Study Tip #44: Read Material That Helps You Understand The Bible’s Times and Cultures

One of the most important keys to better Bible study is understanding context, and one of the most important aspects of “context” is the historical and cultural context that produced the text (See Better Bible Study Tip #41). Although the Bible is 100% the inspired word of God, God inspired the text by using real life people who wrote in real life historical situations (see Better Bible Study Tip #30). Since our goal is to understand what the original authors of scripture were trying to say, and how the text would have been understood by the original audience (Better Bible Study Tip #43), it is important to gain at least a basic understanding of the culture in which the original author lived.

As we seek to rightly understand scripture, we need to learn to think like the author and like the original audience. Now of course, all cultures have their flaws. I’m not suggesting that ancient worldviews were somehow more correct than our own. I’m simply saying that it helps to understand the culture that produced the text. Understanding their culture is the best way to make sure we are not imposing our foreign context onto the text (Tip #43).

The key to understanding the Bible’s time and culture is to read books (Better Bible Study Tip #22). If you want to understand how people from Egypt, Canaan, or Babylon viewed the world, there’s books written about that. If you want to understand what life was like in the Roman Empire, there’s books written about that. If you want to understand how the various Jewish sects approached scripture during the time of Christ, there’s books written about that. You can even find English translations of tablets and manuscripts that were written during the Bible’s times.

There are lots of good resources out there. You just have to put in the work (Better Bible Study Tip #17). But if you want to be a better Bible student, it’s worth the extra effort to gain a basic understanding of the ancient world.

Better Bible Study Tip #43: Don’t Impose Foreign Contexts Into Scripture

We are often reminded about the importance of reading scripture in context. The flip side of this is also true. Don’t impose foreign contexts into scripture.

The early church fathers did not write the bible. The catholic church did not write the bible. Martin Luther did not write the bible. John Calvin did not write the bible. John Wesley did not write the bible. Alexander Campbell did not write the bible. Of course there have been lots of brilliant students of scripture through the ages, and we can certainly learn from what these people said about scripture. But biblical interpretations that arose from post-biblical times need to take a back seat to scripture itself.

Far too often, modern bible students, teachers, and preachers allow their denominational creeds and traditions to drive their theology. If we want to understand scripture, we need to ask what the original inspired authors of scripture were trying to communicate. We need to ask how scripture would have been understood by the original audience. In other words, the proper context for interpreting scripture is the context that produced it. Every other context is foreign to scripture. If we forget this point, we may end up assigning meanings to scripture that the inspired authors never intended to communicate.

Remember, the Bible itself is inspired; later interpreters of the Bible are not. Don’t impose foreign contexts into scripture.

Better Bible Study Tip #42: The Meaning of a Word is Determined By Context

When I first started studying my Bible, one of my go-to resources was a Bible dictionary. If I wanted to know what a particular word in my Bible meant, I would look it up. That’s what a dictionary is for, right? At some point, I discovered lexicons, where I could actually look up the definition of the original Greek or Hebrew word that stands behind our translations.

Although I still use bible dictionaries and lexicons, at some point it dawned on me that looking up a word in a dictionary may or may not be the best way to fully understand how a word is being used. For example, think about the English word “run.” We all know what the word “run” means. It refers to a type of movement that is faster than a walk, where only one foot touches the ground at a time. Right?

But now put word “run” in a sentence. “Inflation is running wild!” Do you see how the word “run” changes meaning depending on how it is being used? I could also say “The Braves just scored another run”, or “You have a run in your sweater”, or “the river runs south” or I could talk about a politician’s “run for office.” If I didn’t know English, and I wanted to know what the word “run” means, I could look it up in a dictionary, but that would only get me part of the way there. Although dictionaries can be helpful, if we really want to understand what a word means, we need to understand the context in which the word is used.

When doing word studies, we must remember that a word may be used in different senses in different places. For example, the word “doxa” or “glory” might mean “splendor” (“…Solomon in all his glory…”, Mt. 6:29), or “praise” (“…he did not give God the glory…”, Acts 12:23), or “brightness”, (“the glory of Moses’s face”, 2 Cor. 3:7). The word “grace” may refer to “thanks” (2 Tim. 1:3), or “kindness” (Titus 2:11), or a “gift” (2 Cor. 9). The word “pnuma” or “spirit” might refer to “wind” (John 3:8), or a person’s character (Lk. 1:17), or part of man that exists after death (1 Pet. 3:18).

It’s also important to remember that words can’t mean anything we wish. We must avoid the temptation of looking up a word in a dictionary or lexicon, and picking out whichever definition best serves our purpose. While a word can mean many different things, we must strive to understand what meaning makes the most sense in a given context.

Ultimately, a word means what the author intended for it to mean. For example, in one instance when Jesus used the word “temple”, people were wrong to assign their own meaning to the word that Jesus did not intend. He meant the temple of his body, not the grand building in Jerusalem (John. 2:19-22). As hearers, we must strive to understand what the author was trying to communicate, and not make arbitrary interpretations.

Better Bible Study Tip #41: Context is King

For most of my life I’ve heard others talk about the importance of reading scriptures in context. They are exactly right. Context is king.

But what exactly does it mean to read scriptures in context? I used to think that reading scripture in context meant reading the verses immediately preceding and following the scripture, in order to get an idea for the flow of thought. I might even think bigger picture, and think about how the scripture contributes to the overall flow of the book, or even how the idea fits in the larger context of the whole Bible. If you think that’s what context is, you are exactly right. Those are some really important aspects of reading scripture in context.

Sometimes we might think of context in terms of genre. Is the author writing a discourse? Is he speaking historically? Is he speaking poetically? Is he speaking literally or figuratively? This is another important level of context to consider, and it can certainly help our understanding of the text.

But literary context is not the only level of context that matters. One level of context that is frequently overlooked is the historical and cultural context. Since the Holy Spirit inspired the writings of scripture through real life people as they experienced real life historical circumstances, we need to try to make ourselves aware of the circumstances that occasioned the text, as well as the cultural features of that time.

For example, when Paul wrote Romans, he wasn’t writing in the historical context of the reformation movement. He was primarily addressing the conflict between Jews and Gentiles in the early church. This isn’t to suggest that principles addressed in the book of Romans can’t be applied to other historical contexts, but we need to keep our understanding of the text rooted in the original historical and cultural circumstances.

For another example, the book of Genesis wasn’t written as a science textbook for the purpose of addressing evolutionist in the early 20th century. It was written in an ancient near eastern context, and interacts with and confronts some of the ungodly worldviews that were prevalent in that culture at that time. This doesn’t mean that Genesis is historically or scientifically inaccurate, and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider it when interacting with modern worldviews. It just means that we need to be careful to keep our understanding rooted in the original historical and cultural context.

The Bible was not written in the context of the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformation movement, the Restoration movement, or a modern context. Two of the best questions we can ask are, “What did the original author mean when he wrote this?” and “How would this have been understood by the original audience given their cultural and historical context?” If we’re going to rightly apply the Bible in our own cultural context, we first need to make sure we are understanding it correctly in it’s original cultural context. For better Bible study, remember that context is king.

Better Bible Study Tip #40: Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

The Bible puts more emphasis on certain things, and less emphasis on others. For example, think about what the Bible teaches us about the life of Jesus. A vast majority of what the Bible tells us comes from about a three year period of his life. We know almost nothing about Jesus’s first thirty years on earth. We’re given details about his birth (Mt. 1-2; Lk. 1:1-2:40), and one story from when he was twelve (Lk. 2:41-51). Other than that, about all we know about Jesus’s early life is that he worked as a carpenter in Nazareth, and he “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Lk. 2:52).

This absence of detail isn’t an oversight. It’s intentional. The writers of the gospels weren’t writing to give us a full biography of Jesus. They wrote with the purpose of convincing people about the gospel. They were intentionally selective about what details they gave us, and what details they omitted as unnecessary. Keep in mind that these writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The details we are given are precisely the details we are supposed to be given. When details are lacking, that’s important too. If the Holy Spirit wanted us to have more details, He certainly could have given them to us.

The same is true with points of doctrine. For example, the Bible includes a lot of teaching about the importance of baptism and living a new life in Christ, but there’s only a handful of verses that help explain the roles of angels and demons. The Bible includes several clear principles about the roles of men and women in the church, but it doesn’t give us all the details we might want to answer every question about application with precision. Remember, all of this is intentional. The inclusion and omission of details is all inspired.

It’s important to think carefully about what this means, and what it doesn’t. This does not mean that details don’t matter. They do (see Bible Study Tip #14). If the Holy Spirit chose to include a detail, it’s important.

What it does mean is that we need to be careful to keep the main thing the main thing. If the Holy Spirit continually emphasizes certain points of doctrine, we should recognize this, and try to emphasize those same points. Where the Bible gives few details, we should resist the temptation to fill in the gaps. “Speak where the bible speaks, and be silent where the bible is silent” is good advice, not only for our teaching, but also for our personal study. Keep the main thing the main thing.

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.