Twenty things to keep in mind when studying the Bible.
1. Its Author. When studying the Bible we have the advantage of having its Author with us. The Holy Spirit desires to teach us what the Bible says and has the power to illuminate us about its teachings (1 Jn. 2:27). We must constantly look to the Lord to help us understand, rather than trusting our own intellect.
2. Read it. The more we read the Bible, the more we’ll understand it. And since the Bible is a unified whole, reading in Genesis can help us understand our study in Revelation.
3. Meditate. This doesn’t mean that we are to sit cross-legged and chant. This is simply the process of thinking about a passage over and over in different ways. We needn’t expect to understand every verse the first time we read it. If the verse confuses us, we ought to pray that the Lord will help us understand.
4. Context. The Bible is not a collection of verses randomly thrown together. Verses relate to the verses around them. All kinds of bizarre teachings flow from taking Scripture out of context. We can take a verse out of context (Php. 4:13), a chapter out of context (1 Cor. 13), or a book out of context (James). Note:
• Immediate Context. What do the verses immediately before and after this verse say? (e.g., Php. 4:13 does not mean that Paul could leap tall buildings in a single bound; 2 Tim. 3:1-5 shows how terrible disobeying parents really is).
• Passage Context. What events were happening before and after the passage you’re considering? (e.g., Mk 5:25-34).
• Topical Context. What is the main topic being addressed in the passage? (e.g., 1 Cor. 13 isn’t a random love song; it shows the only suitable motive for using our gifts, see chs. 12 and 14).
• Book Context. What do you know about the book this verse is in? (e.g., so much of what is said in Hebrews means far more when we remember that Hebrews is dealing with Christ’s superiority over Judaism, e.g., 6:19). Who wrote the book? To whom was it written? What kind of literature is it? Is the purpose for the book stated? What period of time does the book deal with? Other examples of books whose context is generally ignored are James and Ecclesiastes.
• Bible Context. How does this verse fit into the rest of the Bible? What does the rest of the Bible say about this topic?
• Historical Context. What other events in the Bible were occurring at the same time as this? (e.g. Zech. 6:9-15).
5. To whom was the passage written? All of the Bible was written for us but not all of it was written to us. We must distinguish between Jews, Gentiles and the Church (1 Cor. 10:32). We can’t apply Leviticus to our lives in the same way that we can apply Philippians. Much confusion in Christendom comes from failing to distinguish between Israel and the Church.
6. Interpret scripture with scripture. In seeking to understand a word, phrase or verse, look to other related Bible passages to see how it is used elsewhere. Some examples:
• Who is “him who overcomes” in Rev. 2 & 3? See 1 Jn. 5:5.
• What is “the key of David” in Rev. 3:7? See Isa 22:20-25.
• What did Christ mean in Mk. 15:34? See Ps. 22 for the answer.
• What does Jude 11 mean? See related Old Testament passages.
• What does 1 Cor. 14:21 mean? See Isa. 28:11 for the answer.
• What is the vineyard in Isa. 5:1? See Isa. 5:7 for the answer.
• Do you want to know why the Lord Jesus told people not to tell others about Him (Mt. 12:16-21)? See Isa. 42:1-4 for the answer.
• Do you want a good commentary on the OT? Try Hebrews.
7. The Bible at face value. To take the Bible literally means to take it in its plain and obvious sense unless otherwise indicated (e.g., Dan. 2:28, 36; “I am the vine,” “this is My body”). “If the plain sense of a passage makes common sense, seek no other sense.” Too often we can twist the Bible by spiritualizing, or explaining everything away (e.g. Mt. 5:34; 1 Cor. 11; 1 Tim. 3:2). The disciples were unnecessarily confused by some things the Lord Jesus said simply because they refused to take them at face value (e.g., Mk. 9:9f, 31f). The Bible contains many figures of speech (e.g., “four corners of the earth,” Isa. 11:12; “face to face” meaning “mouth to mouth” or directly, Ex. 33:11).
8. Word meanings. Make sure you understand what the Bible means when using a word. Many words mean something different in today’s speech (e.g., church, justify, son).
9. Consider all of the verses on a subject. Don’t build a doctrine on just one verse. Consider every reference to a subject before coming to a conclusion. Interpret obscure passages in light of clear ones. If you make 1 Cor. 15:29 your main passage for studying baptism, save yourself the trouble and give up now. When the Bible has dozens of passages that teach something clearly (for example, eternal security), don’t be confused by one verse that at first glance seems to teach the opposite. Start with what you understand, not with what you are confused by.
10. Grammar. Note what is singular and what is plural; passive vs. active; positive vs. negative; statement vs. question; completed action vs. continuing action.
11. Other translations. Frequently a verse that is unclear in one translation will be clearer in another one.
12. Compare and contrast. Look up similar events, people, passages, teachings, etc. Cross-reference books can help (e.g., as found in The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge). When looking at contrasting elements, remember that because two things are similar does not mean that they are identical:
• In Rev. 2 and 3, each letter has a similar structure. You could, for example, study the promises of each letter or the descriptive terms regarding Christ in each letter.
• In Hebrews, Christ is compared to all aspects of Judaism. He is prophet, priest, sacrifice, altar, veil, etc. But Christ is also contrasted with all aspects of Judaism—He is superior to them.
• Rom. 5:12-21. Here we’re told that Adam was a “type” of Christ (stressing their similarities), yet the large parenthesis in the passage is devoted to showing their differences (vv. 13-17).
• 2 Sam. 7:4-17 and 1 Chron. 17:3-15 clearly are parallel passages, yet the 2 Sam. passage is referring to Solomon and Christ whereas the 1 Chronicles passage refers to Christ alone.
13. Prophecy. There are at least three factors to keep in mind when studying Bible prophecy:
• Some prophecies are placed in the past prophetic tense to emphasize that they are guaranteed (e.g., Heb. 2:14; Isa. 53).
• Some prophecies have more than one fulfillment (e.g., Joel 2:28ff); often one is partial and the other complete.
• Some prophetic statements are blended together (e.g., those concerning Judas in Acts 1) or separated into two distinct events (see fulfillment of most of Isa. 61:1-2 except “day of vengeance”).
14. Interpreting personal experience. Always interpret personal experience in the light of Scripture, not the other way round. Our feelings, thoughts, experiences can be misleading or dead wrong. Scripture is without error.
15. Build on a solid foundation. Take the time to learn the major doctrines of the Bible as they progressively unfold. To rush into studying all of the details of the Bible before getting a grip on its doctrinal teachings is like trying to build a house’s superstructure without first laying a foundation.
16. Types and shadows. When we consider Old Testament types and pictures, we must be careful since there’s a ditch on either side of the road. On the one hand, we can make the mistake of ignoring types. This is regrettable since types can be very helpful in illustrating New Testament teaching. For example, the five Levitical offerings show us five aspects of the work of Christ that we would be hard-pressed to see clearly with only the New Testament. On the other hand, we can make the mistake of becoming obsessed with typology and waste time exercising our fertile imaginations. Types were intended by the divine Author.
17. Parables. Similar to types, parables are intended both to illustrate biblical truth (to the believer) and obscure it (from those who resist the truth). In interpreting parables, we must not let our imaginations run free and assign meanings to every tiny element of the parable. The same is true of other illustrations in the Bible. For example, when Peter refers to the Word of God as milk (1 Pet. 2:2), don’t become too fanciful in thinking of ways that the Word is like milk (e.g., “Milk is white and that speaks of the purity of the Bible.” Certainly the Bible is pure, but that’s not the point God was making when He likened it to milk.).
18. The Bible is complete. We don’t need to appeal to outside sources to understand the Bible. Be careful: in almost all instances when people appeal to extra-biblical sources to “interpret” the Bible, they are really trying to explain away the Bible’s clear teaching. Much danger lies in trying to interpret the Bible through outside history.
The unchanging Word of God is the only accurate, reliable source of interpretation. Of human history, no scholar knows even 1%, and most of what is known is slanted, speculative, fluctuating and fragmentary. To apply man’s historical accounts in a way which contradicts the teaching of divinely revealed Scripture (e.g., speaking about the practice of first century prostitutes to shave their heads to explain 1 Cor. 11) is extremely foolish.
19. Supposed contradictions. One contradiction has never been proven. Many apparent contradictions have evaporated as we have learned more. You can trust the Bible!
20. Christ. Christ is unique. He is frequently “the exception to the rule” in the Bible. For instance, when Paul writes, “There is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10) he clearly doesn’t mean to include Christ in that blanket statement any more than he intends to include the Father or the Holy Spirit.