Many wonder if there is some “method” or “manner” in personal Bible study. That is, they ask, “How do I approach Bible study?” and “How can I be sure I am getting at the truth of a matter?”
Like many hard or detailed subjects Bible study also requires deep thought and repetition to arrive at a correct understanding. There is no mystery, no magic, and no divine spiritual truths to Biblical understanding. As Proverbs 2:1-9 counsels, Bible study requires “digging” as if one were mining for gold or silver.
However, there are some key principles to keep in mind when beginning a study of the Bible. These same ideas can be applied when reading Biblical material written by someone else - including this article - or, when listening to a Christian preacher or teacher.
The first thing to think about is this: Has my thinking already been influenced by others? For example, was I raised believing in eternal hell-fire torment? Such ideas may have been taught by parents, friends, or the church one was raised in. If such is the case it is likely that when approaching the Bible seriously for the first time, a new student might see this idea in certain texts. How much better to begin with Genesis and as one comes upon a verse that deals with the “after-life” or “death” research these key words, making notes as you go.
The same is true with other so-called Bible teachings we have been exposed to in the family, church, modern media, or friends: the Trinity, the immortality of the human soul, or treating one day as particular special. For example, one may have been raised with the idea that Christ returned invisibly in 1844 or 1914. Whether these ideas or true or not, when reading the Bible if one is predisposed to a certain teaching it is likely this will influence a clear interpretation of the Scriptures.
This presupposition can be very subtle and we may not even be aware of it when it occurs. For example, if I ask you to read Matthew chapter 24 and tell me what will be the signs of the last days, it is possible you will already assume Matthew 24 outlines signs of the last days. Of course, if you turn to Matthew chapter 24 and note the topic heading for a particular page you may find “signs of the last days” or something similar. Such headings reinforce this bias or predisposition that Matthew chapter 24 is about signs of the “last days.”
How much more accurate would it be if one first looked for the words “last days”? They will not be found in Matthew chapter 24. The words “last days” will not be found in any of Jesus’ teachings. So, the original question may be misleading. Why not read Matthew chapter 24 in its context beginning with the first two verses? You could also compare the same introduction in Mark and Luke for added information. By using a concordance or a computer search you could check for the occurrences of “last days” in the Christian Bible. In this manner you could learn what this phrase means as used in the Bible.
Whether honestly or dishonestly some teachers may have an agenda or motive in pursuing a certain viewpoint. For example, a teacher who believes his or her church or religion is the only true one will present material biased to this point. For example, one church may say they are the true church because they have “apostles” and they can point to Bible verses which mention “apostles” in the early Church. Another might claim they are the only group preaching the “good news of the Kingdom” and point to Matthew 24:14. And yet another, observes Saturday as the Sabbath, or insists the Law of Moses must be observed, and they will point to Bible verses to reinforce their agenda that their religious organization is the true one. We do not dogmatically state here these are all erroneous. We just offer the warning that the new Bible student must examine various aspects of such claims.
Another example how an agenda can prejudice a viewpoint are commentaries on 1 Corinthians 14:33, 34 and 1 Timothy 2:11, 12. Some teachers want to attract as many people as possible so they will present the Bible with the agenda of “tickling the ears” of those who listen or read them. [1 Timothy 4:1-3] They will avoid being direct or straightforward. Something like a politician they cannot answer any question simply Yes or No.
A wise course of action is to take the time to examine the key words in a question or assertion. This is greatly eased with modern search programs in some Bible study software. However, it can still be done the old fashion way - Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. For example, on the phrase above, “last days,” one will see this occurs only about a handful of times in the New Testament. The good doctor and historian Luke pointed to the noble-mindedness of certain persons in Beroea who daily searched the Scriptures to see if what Paul taught was really so. [Acts 17:10, 11] No honest Christian teacher will object to being questioned why he affirms a certain belief.
How can we examine the arguments of such teachers? How can we know whether they are true or not? A Christian teacher may be found approaching the Bible from either an emotional or spiritual perspective. For example, in a recent discussion on the identity of the 144,000 in Revelation 7:1-8, one Bible teacher argued that the number must be literal because he ‘felt God would not make it so easy to get to heaven. God’s requirements to attain heaven are so difficult; that surely only 144,000, or about 70 a year to date, could qualify for heaven.’ Of course, I would suppose this Christian elder felt he was among this limited number of 144,000. Others state, ‘the literal number of 144,000 must be filled by now because it only makes sense and this is the only reasonable view.’ Both arguments - though possibly true - are based on emotion and not on Biblical reason. What seems reasonable to one person may not be to another. Indeed, the Proverbs caution “There is a way that seems right to a person, but the end leads to death.”
Often this emotional appeal is based on the assumption that a God of love would agree with a certain teacher. He or she might argue, “Surely, a God of love would do such and such.” An example of such emotional reason was discovered in a recent international magazine published in scores of languages. While tracing the history of certain Bible teachers in the mid to late 1800s the magazine states regarding a certain George Storrs:
“Storrs was repelled by the Adventist view that God would resurrect wicked people for the sole purpose of putting them to death again. He could see no evidence in the Scriptures for such a pointless and vengeful act on God’s part. Storrs and his associates went to the other extreme and concluded that the wicked would not be resurrected at all. Though they had difficulty explaining certain scriptures that referred to the resurrection of the unrighteous, their conclusion seemed to them to be more in harmony with God’s love. A further step in the understanding of God’s purpose was soon to come.” [The Watchtower, October 15, 2000, page 28]
The above presentation provides no spiritual or Scriptural reasoning, but relies on emotional judgment based on their own precise understanding of God’s love. Well, how would one spiritually reason on a certain teaching or Bible verse? Let us use another example that recently came up. One Bible teacher argued that John 5:28, 29 was described two resurrections: a] “the resurrection of life" was the raising of the Christian Church; and. b] the “resurrection of judgment” was of humankind in general. It appeared that the mere statement of the above was enough to prove his affirmation. How can we know?
Few Christian teachers are aware that at John 5:28, 29 the Nazarene was borrowing and paraphrasing language from the Old Testament Hebrew Bible. Is it fair to conclude that the inspired interpretation of Jesus would end all arguments? In other words, if Jesus explains certain Bible verses in a certain way that this would affirm the truth of any given viewpoint of the truth. Let us take a closer look at John 5:28, 29 from a spiritual, non-emotional, perspective.
In the Greek language of John 5:28 there is the phrase PANTES [all] OI [those] EN [in] TA [the] MNEMEIOIS [memorium]. This is the exact same phrase in the 3rd Century BC Jewish Greek translation of the Hebrew of Isaiah 26:19. According to the Bagster version this verse reads:
“The dead shall rise, and they that are in the [memorial] tombs shall be raised.”
The context may suggest that those under consideration here are not all humanity in general but God’s own people, spiritual Jews. [Isaiah 26:1, 20] If this were the case then John 5:28 would be in the context of the resurrection of the Christian Church.
However, is there more behind John 5:29 that may confirm this conclusion? From where does Jesus draw the language of John 5:29?
“… and those having done good things will come out unto ‘a resurrection of Life’. [Daniel 12:2 LXX] Those who have habitually done corrupt things ‘unto a resurrection of condemnation’. [Daniel 12:2]” [Christian Scriptures 2001]
Some Bible versions, like the 21st Century Version of the Christian Scriptures help the reader see that Jesus’ language is taken from Daniel 12:2. By comparing Daniel 12:1, 2 we see the context is the Great Oppression and the resurrection of God’s People upon the appearing of Michael.
Daniel 12:1, 2 reads:
“And during that time Michael will appear, the great prince who rules the children of your people. And there will certainly occur a great oppression such as has not been made to occur since the nation (of Israel) came into existence. And during that time (of great oppression) your people will be rescued, every one who is found written down in the Book. And there will be many of those asleep in the ground of dust who will wake up, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting reproach.” [Hebrew Scriptures 2001©; for details on this rendering See Nazarene Commentary 2000© notes on Daniel 12:1, 2; or, Nazarene Apocalypse 2000]
At John 5:29 Jesus quotes the phrase “wake up … some to everlasting life” but uses “resurrection” instead of “wake up.” The Nazarene paraphrases that latter portion of Daniel 12:2 - “some to shame and everlasting reproach” - as “a resurrection of condemnation.”
What do we learn from our Master’s own application of Daniel 12:2? We learn that his paraphrase “a resurrection of condemnation” means awakening “to shame and everlasting reproach.” The context of both Daniel 12 and John 5 are dealing with the resurrection of Spiritual Israel, the Christian and not humankind in general. Thus, Christ leads us to the conclusion that all those who claimed to be Christians will be resurrected. But, how can we confirm this viewpoint even further?
To our surprise two other inspired writers of the Christian Bible allude to our Master’s words in John 5:29. Paul borrows the words “good” and “vile” when he says of the Christian Church:
“For it is necessary that all of us appear in front of the judgment-seat of the Christ, so that we might receive what we deserve for those things performed by means of the body, whether these things be ‘good or vile.’ [Daniel 12:2; John 5:29]” [Christian Scriptures 2001]
Also the apostle John borrows the idea of two outcomes to the resurrection and judgment of the Christian Church when he writes to the anointed:
“Now, little children, continue to abide in (Jesus) so when the time comes for him to be made visible we all might speak openly and freely at his Arrival and not experience ‘embarrassment’ while standing before him.” [1 John 2:28 Christian Scriptures 2001]
John’s word “embarrassment” here may also be rendered “shame” and it is related to the same word found in the Greek version of Daniel 12:2. [See Nazarene Commentary 2000© notes on the above verses for details.]
Thus, there is a big difference between an emotional and spiritual view of the Bible. The person interested in a true spiritual interpretation of the Bible will look for those cases where Jesus or one of his inspired disciples made their own application of the Old Testament. In doing so we can get something more than a mere emotional approach. There are literally hundreds of quotations and allusions of the Old Testament found in the New Testament. Some versions make these easy to find. For example, the New Jerusalem Bible italicizes phrases in the New Testament drawn from the Old Testament. The 21st Century Version of the Christian Scriptures [NCMM] puts words in blue where they are quoted and in fusia where it is an allusion to the language of the Hebrew Bible. By comparing these we can always get an “inspired interpretation” from Jesus or Paul or John, rather than rely on the emotions of another.
It is often very difficult to severe religious ideas we were raised with. We naturally trust our parents, our teachers, our ministers. At some point our maturity demands we begin to think without bias. Cutting the umbilical cord from our spiritual and religious backgrounds is a constant effort. The genuine Christian disciple’s goal is to first understand the Nazarene Master, Jesus Christ. He was not only a teacher but also a prophet. He was The Prophet foretold by Moses. [Deuteronomy 18:15]
Some, frustrated by trying to make doctrines fit the Bible, completely give up. They remain spiritual babies all their lives. [1 Corinthians 3:1, 2] They reach a certain point and then they just rehash, rehash, rehash certain fundamentals. They never become mature as Paul encourages:
“Until we all together grow into perfect maturity measured by the full stature of the Christ. So we no longer remain babies, tossed here and there by (doctrinal) waves, carried aimlessly by every wind of teaching. By the deceptive slight of hand always engaging in methodical plans.” [Ephesians 4:13, 14 Christian Scriptures 2001]
Paul writes to Jewish Christians who should have become teachers themselves because of their many years as disciples. He tells such persons:
“Regarding [Jesus] we have the word to speak and hard to interpret since you have become sluggish in your hearing. For there are those who ought to be teachers by now, but you have a need to be taught by someone all over again from the beginning the elementary principles the sacred words of The God. You have become those needing milk and not solid nourishment. For every person partaking of milk is really unfamiliar with the word of righteousness because they remain babies. However, solid nourishment belongs to mature persons, those who through the use of their sensory organs have been trained like an athlete to be able to distinguish between what is good or bad.” [Hebrews 5:11-14 Christian Scriptures 2001]
It is sad to witness a Christian who has been a disciple for decades and yet has not progressed beyond the fundamentals. Even some ministers continue to preach the same sermon every Sunday, dressing it up in different clothes, hoping no one will discover. Paul instructs those Christians mentioned above not to continue relaying the same foundation over and over:
“Consequently, having left the basic teachings of the Christ, may we pass along to perfection, not laying a foundation again of ["elementary principles"] -- repentance from dead works, faith toward God, teachings on baptisms, the laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and ageless condemnation. And, indeed, this we shall do if The God permits.” [Hebrews 6:1-3 Christian Scriptures 2001]
Some of these persons will be critical of Biblical prophecy, forgetting that our Nazarene Master is “the Prophet.” They even speak ill of those who do study the “meat” of God’s Word. To these Paul words apply:
“Do not treat prophecies as nothing.” [1 Thessalonians 5:20 Christian Scriptures 2001]
Though professing Jesus is their Lord, they forget that Revelation begins,
“A revelation of Jesus Christ that the God gave to him to show his slaves those ‘things that are bound to occur suddenly’. [Daniel 2:28] And he showed [this revelation] by signs sent through his angel to his slave John. [John] testified regarding the Word of the God and the testimony of Jesus Christ and everything he saw. Blessed is the person reading aloud, and those hearing the words of the prophecy, and those observing all those things that have been written - for the season is near.” [Revelation 1:1-3 Christian Scriptures 2001]
The mature Christian will not withdraw from the only words Jesus delivered from the spiritual realm - Revelation. As Jesus did in his earthly ministry, in Revelation he uses scores and scores of phrases borrowed from the ancient Hebrew prophets. For example, in Revelation allusions are made to the prophet Daniel 57 times, mainly Daniel chapter 7. So the combination of Daniel 7 and Revelation will go a long way in explaining these prophecies. The prophet Zechariah is referenced 14 times.
No one will master or mature in their understanding of Revelation with a few readings. Indeed, it may take years, and certainly Revelation will thrill the genuine disciple for all the years of his or her life. It is hoped the above observations and thoughts will aid other Christians in their life-long study of the many treasures found in the Word of “the God of knowledge.”
Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller
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