How to Study the Bible

Series: Preacher: Date: June 12, 2011 Scripture Reference: 1 Timothy 4:7-8; Joshua 1:7-8; 2 Timothy 2:15

1st Timothy 4:7 – Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be Godly.

8 – For physical training is of some value, but Godliness has value to all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

Joshua 1:7 – Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.

8 – Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.

2nd Timothy 2: 15 – Do your best—Study—to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the Word of truth.

These days anything we buy—from a toothbrush to a week-wacker—will come with instructions as to how it is to be used. In fact, many times our purchases also come with CAUTION LABELS that warn us how NOT to use the item. This week I came across some actual caution labels that made me chuckle. Perhaps they will give you a grin or two as well.

  • As you can see, on the side of a baby stroller box, there is this warning: “Remove child before folding.”
  • On a cardboard sun shield like this one there was this sentence: “Don’t drive with sun shield in place.”
  • On a toilet bowl cleaning brush box it says: “Not for oral use.”
  • On a Bic lighter: “Light this lighter away from face.”
  • On the package of a rain gauge, there was this comment: “Suitable for outdoor use.”
  • On a 500-piece puzzle: “Some assembly required.”
  • I love this one taken from the instruction manual of a chainsaw: “Do not attempt to stop the blade with your hand.”
  • And finally, my favorite—on a package of little juggling balls like these, there was this warning: “This product contains small granules under 3 millimeters, not suitable for children under the age of 14 years in Europe or under the age of 8 years in the United States.”

I guess this is proof that our children’s digestive systems develop much more quickly than those of children in European countries!

All kidding aside—the reason these kind of labels exist is because manufacturers produced a product they thought was pretty straightforward, but along the way something went wrong. Someone opened a package and began to use the product in a way in which it wasn’t intended, which I’m sure led to an injury, and probably a lawsuit or two. So the manufacturers decided that in order to protect themselves they needed to clarify with the warning label. I bring this up because many Christ-followers have similar troubles when it comes to the personal Bible Study.  They don’t know how to use God’s written Word properly. And this is not a recent problem because it’s mentioned in the New Testament in the form of what you might call a “caution label.” I’m referring to Paul’s warning to young Timothy, when he cautioned that pastor to RIGHTLY handle the Word of truth…which would infer that even in the first century there were people who were using the Scriptures improperly.

Well, this morning I want us to use our time to learn how to study the Bible correctly such that God uses our RIGHT study to shape us into the image of His Son. And we need to pay attention because this particular spiritual discipline is not one that Christ-followers can afford to avoid. You see, the Bible is not just another book. It is the inspired, infallible Word of God. I like how Paul Powell puts it. He writes, “As a watch is our authority on time, as a compass is our authority on directions, as a dictionary is our authority on definitions, so the Bible is our authority on what to believe and how to live.”

Another thing…the Bible is a book of ETERNAL truth. This is why other books come and go but the Bible remains timeless. This is why it is never out of date.  As it says in 1st Peter 1:24, “ The grass withers and the flower fades but the Word of the Lord endures forever.” The fact is our understanding of this eternal Book is indispensable to our spiritual growth—and the Bible itself says so.

  • 1st Peter 2:2 and Hebrews 5:14 remind us that God’s written Word is the “milk” and the “meat” that helps us to grow spiritually.
  • Psalm 119:105 says that it is a “lamp” to guide us down the pathways of life.
  • James 1:23 says the Bible is a “mirror” in which we can see our true selves.
  • Hebrews 4:12 says it is a “surgeon’s knife” that lays bare and analyzes our deepest being.
  • Ephesians 6:17 says it is a “sword” with which we defend ourselves against the enemy.

The Bible is all of this and more!

If you weren’t here last Sunday then you may not know that during the month of June we are focusing on five spiritual disciplines that help us to become more like Jesus. And…before we get into our study of this particular spiritual discipline let’s back up and talk about spiritual disciplines as a whole for a moment because there are certain things we must understand in order to use each of these tools correctly.

(1) First of all, we need to know that using these spiritual disciplines is not…a ONE TIME thing.

This is a disappointment to many of us because we WANT spiritual maturity—but we are so busy that we want it FAST. We want it convenient. We figure that since there is an app for just about anything these days, there must be one for spiritual growth. We think spiritual growth should be something we can do easily and quickly and then check it off our to-do lists so we can move on to other things. But there is no such thing as quick Godliness. In fact, spiritual maturity is the result of a commitment to an ongoing process that we never complete this side of eternity.

These disciplines we are looking at are really different kinds of TRAINING that we must practice daily for the rest of our lives. You see, spiritual growth never comes easily. We must practice Godliness in the same way an athlete practices a sport day after day after day. This is what Paul meant when he encouraged young Timothy to TRAIN himself to be Godly. We do this by embracing these daily disciplines—things that many people refer to as “holy habits” — practices that over the years help us to grow to be more and more like Jesus.

(2) Another thing…these disciplines are NOT…a BAROMETER of spiritual maturity.

I’ve met many people who seem to believe that THEY are spiritual because they read their Bible daily and fast twice a week. They get into a sort of spiritual pride thing because they feel they have been more faithful in these disciplines than others around them. Well, when we fall into this way of thinking we have a problem because we are defining how GOOD a Christian we are by how GOOD we are performing the disciplines. And when this happens, the disciplines become an end in themselves rather than a means to an end. Looking at these holy habits in this way is equating spiritual DOING with spiritual BEING—and this is a great misconception. You see, the spiritual disciplines are to life what practice is to a basketball game. Once the game starts basketball players get no bonus points for the number of free throws they shot in practice. The only reason they practice these shots is to be able to make them in the game. In a similar sense, we read the BIBLE and pray and fast and tithe, etc. for the purpose of training ourselves to react in the game of life more like Jesus would. The TRUE barometer of spiritual maturity then is seen in how we live—not in how often we engage in these disciplines.

(3) And then, these disciplines are also NOT a way to earn FAVOR with God.

They are not about trying to be good enough to merit God’s forgiveness and goodwill. We don’t do them to get extra credit or to demonstrate to God how deeply we are committed to Him. In other words, these disciplines do not oppose or exist in tension with grace. They are simply a means of growing toward the wonderful quality of life that God graciously offers. Richard Foster puts it this way, “God has given us the disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving His grace. The disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us.”

But…enough of the negative…what IS a spiritual discipline?

Let’s begin with a definition of the word itself. Simply put, a discipline is, “…any activity I can do by direct effort that will help me do what I cannot do now by direct effort.” Disciplines are practices that make it possible for us to do what we cannot do by our willpower alone. This is the secret of the success of Alcoholics Anonymous. The first of their famous twelve steps is to acknowledge that an alcoholic cannot stop drinking by willpower alone. He must arrange his life around certain disciplines or practices that will enable him to do what willpower can’t. He must enter a life of TRAINING for sobriety.

(1) Well a SPIRITUAL discipline then, is any activity that helps us get the power to live life as JESUS would want us to.

A spiritually-disciplined person is someone who, thanks to his training in Godliness, is more likely to do the right thing at the right time in the right way with the right spirit, someone who has trained himself to act and re-act and think in any situation as Jesus would. So, these disciplines are the secret to spiritual power—but they are more than that.

(2) They are also the secret to growing an ever closer RELATIONSHIP with God.

These holy habits help us to become closer to our Heavenly Father. They help us to develop a deep fellowship with Him. And we must understand at the onset of this study that God wants this—so very much. He yearns to be in close relationship with us. If you are a parent who has ever dropped a kid off at college or boot camp then you know what it feels like to miss your child—to yearn to talk with them. You feel that parental “homesick-for-your-kid-ache” in your gut all the time. Well, bring that feeling up into your memory—FEEL IT AGAIN for a moment—and magnify it an infinite number of times and you begin to understand how God feels. You see, the “amazing-grace-truth” is that our Heavenly Father yearns to fellowship with us, longs to share our moments and our days, wants to talk with us and guide us. In Matthew 23:37 Jesus expressed this when He looked out across Jerusalem and said, “How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” God wants to be in close relationship with you and you and you and you and me—each of us—and the spiritual disciplines provide a way for this to happen.

Okay with these basic understandings in mind, now let’s begin our study of the spiritual discipline of PERSONAL BIBLE STUDY because as Jerry Bridges says, “Discipline toward holiness BEGINS with the Word of God.” If we truly want to move toward spiritual maturity—if we want to move toward Christlikeness—we must have a healthy diet of the Word of God. Now—remember, the word “disciple” means “student” and a student is someone who studies.  Well, as disciples of Jesus Christ—as Christians—the focus of our study—our textbook—is the Bible. This is what Paul is getting at when he wrote in 2nd Timothy 3:17 saying that we must study the Bible if we are to be “…thoroughly equipped for every good work.” So—how do we study the Bible CORRECTLY? How do we “rightly handle the Word of Truth?”

(1) First of all you must have the right TOOLS.

And the MAIN tool you need is of course a Bible but more specifically, you need one that is written in  language that is not only an accurate translation of the Greek or Hebrew—but also easy for you to understand. These days we are blessed to have dozens of good Bible translations to choose from. I for one have found that it is best in my personal study to have a couple different versions handy—a good literal translation and a good paraphrase. Most scholars agree that the most literal—the most accurate version available now—is the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD VERSION.

My favorite paraphrase of the New Testament is THE NEW TESTAMENT IN MODERN ENGLISH by J. B. Phillips. I think Phillips put the Scriptures in easy to understand words and phrases without straying from the literal meaning of the text. But as I said, there are several good translations out there…the NIV, the NRSV, the TEV, the ESV so pick one or more and use them in your study of God’s Word.

The Bible I use most is the NIV Study Bible. It’s a solid translation and unlike the NASB, it flows well when reading it aloud. Plus, I have found the notes and study helps to be excellent.

The sad fact is that these days many Christians give up on this particular discipline all together because they use only the King James Version—and that was the best translation available back in the 17th century. Even today it has a beauty and a rhythm that is not found in other versions. Paul Powell says the King James Version is “…the most beautiful translation ever made…” and I’d have to agree. It feels like reading one of Shakespeare’s plays. But that’s the problem. It was written back when people spoke like Shakespeare wrote. It was translated into English 400 years ago in 1611 which makes it hard to understand in our culture. It’s called the “King James Version…” because King James I of England is the ruler who commanded that the Bible should be translated into the common language of the people who lived back then. The KJV does not use the words today’s common people use which makes it hard to follow in several places. For example, we’d never say, “suffer the little children to come to Me…” because today the word “suffer” means to cause hurt. But four centuries ago common people used that word to mean, “allow.”

Here’s a true story to help further illustrate this “understanding gap.” About the time the KJV came out Sir Christopher Wren was made the architect in charge of the rebuilding of London after fire of 1666. His most ambitious task was St. Paul’s Cathedral which took 35 years to complete. After work was completed the reigning monarch at the time, Queen Ann, was escorted through the building. When the tour was complete Wren breathlessly awaited her reactions to his work. When the Queen finally spoke she used three words to describe what she saw: Queen Ann said, “It’s awful.  It’s amusing.  It’s artificial.”

Now to us those are three rather DEROGATORY words—especially when used in describing a church building, but in those days those same words were considered high compliments indeed. For example: awful meant “awe inspiring,” amusing meant “amazing,” and artificial meant “artistic.” I share this to help you see how important it is to study from a translation that uses words that you and I DO understand…since the meaning of words change so much overtime. I’m saying, the principle behind the production of the KJV is still valid. Like then we still need the Bible in the language of the common people so that the common people can understand it. In any case, to study the Bible pick from one of today’s excellent translations.

A second item to have in your “Bible study tool belt” to study it correctly is a good concordance.  I say this because there will be times when you need to find a verse that deals with a certain subject and a concordance lists all the words that appear in the Bible and where they can be found. This used to be a difficult tool to have handy because the concordances in the back of your Bible are so limited and the best concordances were huge. But these days thanks to the Internet you can have an exhaustive concordance that’s NOT exhausting. Mine is in my smart phone…easily accessible in my study,

Another important tool is a good commentary. Just be sure it is written by someone who has a healthy respect for the Scriptures. For example, I like Herschel Hobbs’ commentaries on the four gospels. Charles Swindoll’s new commentaries are good as well and so are those by R. Kent Hughes. One final tool I recommend is a notebook—a journal—to use in writing down your thoughts as you read the Bible…your observations…your questions…the prayers that come as a result of your study. I’ve found that as Dawson Trotman once put it, “Thoughts disentangle themselves when they pass over the lips and through the fingertips.”

In any case to study this Book of books correctly, you need to use the right tools.

(2) The second thing you need when studying the Bible is the right ATTITUDE.

One reason I say this is because many people fall into the prideful habit of reading Scripture to APPEAR spiritual.  Remember, as we learned last week, spiritual disciplines are most effective when we don’t do them to be seen by anyone but God. Spiritual disciplines are primarily SECRET practices. Now—some people make another mistake in reading the Bible. They embrace the attitude that we read the Bible to amass information.  But the main reason we study this Book is for TRANSFORMATION! In fact, if your personal Bible study isn’t making you less braggy and more humble, less selfish and more selfless—if it’s not making you more like Jesus…then something is wrong—probably your attitude.  We read from—we study—we memorize the words of this Book in order that we become MATURE, Christlike people.

This past January on our mission trip to the D. R. one night we enjoyed a time of church fellowship with Pastor Carlos’ congregation in Hato Mayor. This was very good because in past years, the language barrier always got in our way. Well, that night after a time of singing songs in Spanish—most of which were unfamiliar melodies, Pastor Carlos divided us into teams for a competition in which he asked us questions about the Bible. There was a women’s team; a men’s team, a college-age team, a youth-age team, and a team of Redlanders. Pastor Carlos went from team to team asking a question. If one team got the wrong answer the next team had a shot. These were hard questions and our team won—but just barely. It was a lot of fun. There was a great deal of cheering and laughter but when we went back to our seats I sensed that the congregation was not entirely happy that our team had been victorious. I sat down next to Hugh and he had been with the rest of our group in the congregation and he told me they could hear comments that indicated the congregation thought it was unfair that our team had me, a pastor on it—that this gave our team an unfair advantage. If they had only known how many of the answers I got wrong they would not have felt that way! Anyway, to restore unity, I told Felix to tell Pastor Carlos that we thought it would only be fair if our team withdrew—that the team that came in second should be crowned the winner. When Pastor Carlos translated this to the people they all smiled and laughed and wagged their fingers at me saying, “No…we want a re-match. We’ll be ready for you next year.” We all laughed and promised to study and get ready for next year’s competition…but that night a wall came down. This time of fellowship strengthened our relationship with these people. It helped break down the language barrier so that I could see them as Godly believers serious about furthering our Lord’s Kingdom. It also taught me that they are not ignorant…no far from it…they are people of the WORD. They study the Bible to show themselves approved—workmen who need not be ashamed but who rightly handle the Word of Truth. Plus their attitudes toward us and seeing all the ministries they do in Hato Mayor show me that they study this Book with the right attitude. They study to become more like our Lord. I look forward to seeing them again next January. Well, we can learn from our Hispanic brothers and sisters. We need to embrace this book with their attitude. We need to cherish it and study it and allow it to correct our thinking and transform us to be more like Jesus. You see, since we live in a fallen culture, our minds and hearts are cluttered with false beliefs and attitudes, deadly feelings, misguided plans and hopes and fears. Because of this, as James says, we must “purify our hearts.” James 4:8 And the Bible can do this if we let it. This is what Paul was referring to in Ephesians 5:27 when he talked about Christians being, “…made holy, cleansed by the washing with water through the Word [of God].” We must have the right attitude as we study the Bible. We must admit our need to be changed…renewed…by its truth.

(3) The third requirement for anyone who wants to truly understand the Bible is the aid of the right TUTOR.

In other words, before you begin reading the Scriptures take a moment to ask God to speak to you.  Then as you study anticipate that He will do exactly that—because Jesus promised that He would. In John 16:13 He said, “The Holy Spirit will guide you into all truth.” You see, one thing that distinguishes this Book from all other books is the fact that if you are a Christian—you have the Spirit of the Author of this book living in you. So—as you read the Bible you can count on that Spirit—the Holy Spirit of God Himself—to speak to you and explain things to you—TUTOR you.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine wrote of a time when he was sitting under a fig tree and he heard a voice repeat. “Take it and read, take it and read.”  It seemed clear to him that this was the voice of God calling him to pick up the Bible and when he had read a brief section from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Augustine wrote, “I had no wish to read further; there was no need to…it was as though my heart was filled with a light of confidence and all the shadows of my doubt were swept away.” I can tell you from experience that God still meets people in this way—so don’t miss out on this incredible blessing. As you study learn to pray with the Psalmist to God, “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in Your law.” (Psalm 119:105) Remember Bible study is not just getting to know the Word of God as much as it is getting to know the God of the Word! As the hymn text says, “Beyond the sacred page I seek THEE Lord…my spirit longs for THEE Oh Living Word.”

(4) Fourthly, when you study the Bible you must use the right METHOD.

And there are several things to remember that will help us to do this. First of all, don’t take verses out of context. Read what went before and after. For example, many men are quick to quote Ephesians 5:25, which says, “Wives, submit to your husbands” as a proof-text that husbands are to domineer over their spouses. But doing so is ignoring verse 21 which says that husbands and wives should, “…submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” To properly understand the Scripture we must read all of it—not pick and choose verses or phrases out of context to support our opinions. It also helps to consider the historical situation and the culture in which certain texts are written. Doing so helps us to glean the principle that we are to apply to our lives today. This is where a good commentary can come in handy.

Another thing—don’t just pick it up and start reading from Genesis. Most people who do that quit by the time they get half way through Leviticus. Adopt a read-your-Bible-through plan that allows you to read it in a balanced way. I love the Chronological Bible because it is set up like this.  The editors have arranged the Bible in the chronological order in which it was written and by doing your daily assignment of about 10 minutes of reading each day you can finish in one year. But I encourage you to take MORE than 10 minutes whenever you read. Don’t just skim the surface of the Scriptures. Take time to absorb the truth.

Right now a little over 100 Redlanders are reading a chapter of the Bible every day. Today’s assignment is Luke 12. I would encourage you 100 people—to take your time in your daily reading. Remember, this is the LIVING WORD of God. If you let it—it will reach off the page and touch your life in a tangible way—but only if you take the time to let it do that. Remember success in Bible study is not measured by the number of verses you read. The goal is not to get through the Scriptures—but for the Scriptures to get through us.

So—read slowly—MEDITATE on it—and as you do ask God, “What do You want to say to me here?” You know, these days MEDITATION get’s a bad rap in many Christian circles. Whenever they hear the word used by a pastor or teacher they accuse him or her of being a new ager or something. The fact is MEDITATION is a Biblical concept. True—this is one more thing the devil counterfeits—but when done correctly meditation is an essential tool in shaping us into Christlikeness.  In Psalm 119 David advises us to meditate on the God’s Word day and night—and I think this infers this practice of taking portions of Scripture and dwelling on them until their truth dwells in us. Meditation is one way we can discipline ourselves to slow down and let the wisdom of the Bible soak into our minds and hearts. Ortberg says, “Meditation is as slow as the process by which the roots draw moisture from the flowing river to bring nurture and fruitfulness to a great tree. Meditation is important enough to be mentioned more than 50 times in the Old Testament. Meditation is likened in Scripture to a young lion growling over its prey, or the low murmur of a dove, or a cow chewing its cud. Meditation is not meant to be esoteric or spooky or reserved for gurus reciting mantras in the lotus position.  It merely implies sustained attention. It is built around this simple principle: ‘What the mind REPEATS, it RETAINS.’” Here’s a suggestion for how to MEDITATE on Scripture. Choose a single verse—one “thought” from the Bible that you will live with for one entire day.  For example, you might select Psalm 46:10 where God says: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

For one day, decide to LIVE with these words. Think about them all day long. Ortberg suggests you tell yourself something like this: “Today, as best I can, I am going to be still. Today before I make decisions, I will try to listen for God’s voice. Today I am not going to be tossed around by anxiety or anger. I will take those feelings as prompts from the Spirit to listen first. In each of these situations I will ask God, ‘How would you like me to respond?’ I will live in stillness.”

If you do this you may learn that being still is a good thing because it is a discipline that reminds you that the Lord really is God.

One more bit of wisdom when it comes to handling correctly the Word of Truth:

(5) We must USE the Bible in the right WAY.

In our study of God’s Word, we must move beyond the question, “What does it mean?” to asking, “What does it mean TO ME?” Then we must seek to apply the truth of God’s word to our lives. This is where Bible study becomes a little less comfortable because we have to actually practice the things we read which involves changing the way we live giving up sinful habits and thoughts.  We may not like this but Bible study is incomplete and really pointless unless we apply it’s truth to our lives…unless as Blackaby says, we adjust our lives in obedience to God’s teaching. So, as James 1:22 says, “Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and after looking at himself, goes away immediately and forgets what he looks like.  But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard but DOING it…he will be blessed in what he does.” For Bible study to benefit our lives we have to apply it’s truths to our lives.

And you know, the same thing is true of worship. It is pointless for us to gather here each week unless we apply what we learn…unless we respond personally, individually…to what God says.

We come now to the time of our service in which we encourage you to do just that.  Today God may have told you that you need to commit to personal Bible study…to reading His Word daily.

If that is true then I challenge you to make that a public decision….walk forward and say, “Mark, I am going to study the Bible every day. Pray for me as I do so.” Others of you may feel God guiding you to join this church…to become a part of this spiritual family as we seek to grow and be more and more like Jesus. And then…there may be someone here this morning who doesn’t know God personally.  You’ve never asked Jesus to forgive you of your sin and to come into your heart and life as Savior and Lord.

You’ve never met the God of the Word…the Author of this book. If that applies to you, then I urge you to make that commitment…and if you do come and share it with me.

Whatever decisions you have to make, I invite you to do so by walking an aisle and sharing them with me or one of the other pastors as we stand and sing.

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