How to Study the Bible:
The Importance of Proper Methods of Studying Scripture
A study of methods, principles, and guidelines for proper Bible study. Includes discussion of the authority and inspiration of Scripture, the importance of knowledge and understanding, the differences between the Old and New Testaments, the importance of following Divine authority in religion instead of human authority or man-made laws, and how to use Bible helps such as translations, concordance, and cross-references.
After baptism, people should be taught to observe all things Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). Learning God’s will is just as essential after baptism as before. Conversion should be the beginning of a lifelong effort of study. However, in order to benefit from Bible study, we must know how to study the Bible properly.
The purpose of this lesson is to present basic Bible principles and methods of proper study. We will consider proper attitudes in study, Bible inspiration, a comparison of the old and new laws, and the danger of following human laws and authority instead of Scripture. Finally, we will give some suggestions about proper use of such helps as translations, concordance, and cross-references.
Part I: Proper Attitudes in Study
Ezra “prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord” (Ezra 7:10). Right methods of study must begin with right attitudes.
A. Appreciate the Importance of Study
People must be motivated before they will study a subject. Christians have all the reasons they could possibly need to study the Bible. Consider a few. As you do, note the emphasis on regular, frequent study.
#1: Study so you can obey God and grow in His service.
Joshua 1:8 – Success in pleasing God requires obedience. To obey, we must meditate on God’s word day and night. Frequent, regular study is required.
1 Peter 2:2 – Can a baby grow without nourishment? No, and neither can Christians grow without Bible study. Do we long for the word like a baby longs for milk if we neglect to attend assemblies or to study at home?
(See also 2 Tim. 2:15; Rom. 10:17; Matt. 4:4; John 6:44,45; 2 Peter 1:12-15.)
#2: Study so you can avoid error and false teaching.
Hosea 4:6 – God’s people were destroyed for lack of knowledge. Many Christians and congregations have been led astray by error and false teaching. To avoid this we must put teachers to the test (1 John 4:1,6). How do we do this unless we know God’s word (Gal. 1:8,9)?
Acts 17:11 – The Bereans distinguished truth from error because they studied the word. To imitate their example, we must study “daily.”
(See also Matt. 22:29; 15:14; Prov. 2:1-20; Rom. 10:1-3.)
#3: Study so you can teach others.
Deuteronomy 6:6-9 – Parents should teach their children diligently through the day. This requires us to first have God’s word in our own hearts. How can we teach what we do not know?
Hebrews 5:12 – The time comes when we ought to be teachers, but these had not studied so they needed others to teach them! There is no excuse for Christians who do not study. Teachers know they need to study. If you are not a teacher, you must study to prepare yourself to become a teacher!
(See also 2 Tim. 2:2; 1 Tim. 1:7; 1 Peter 3:15; Col. 3:16; Rom. 15:14.)
#4: Study to express love for God and His word.
Psalm 1:2; 119:47,48,97-99 – One who delights in God’s word will meditate on it day and night. The time we spend thinking about God’s word indicates how much we love Him. Those who truly love Him will not complain about “having to go” to worship services or prepare for Bible classes. (See Psalm 19:7-11.)
John 14:15 – If we love God, we keep His commands (cf. 1 John 5:3). But obedience requires knowledge. So one who loves God must study His word.
Suppose a young lady is separated from her boyfriend. He writes every day, so she prominently displays his letters on the coffee table. But they sit there for days before she opens and reads them. Does she really love him? No, we want to hear from those we love. The Bible is your only way to hear from God. How much do you love Him?
If we studied all subjects as negligently as some people study the Bible, we would surely be ignorant people. On the other hand, if we would study the Bible as diligently as some people study about sports, hobbies, etc., we would all be excellent Bible students. How much more important is it to understand the Bible than to understand secular subjects?
B. Study with an Open Mind & a Love for Truth.
We must strive to learn truth and obey it regardless of the consequences. Seek it even if it disagrees with what we have believed in the past and requires us to change.
Acts 17:11 – The Bereans were also noble because they received the word with readiness of mind – minds open to truth.
Matthew 5:6 – Hunger and thirst after righteousness.
Matthew 13:14,15 – Some misunderstand truth because they close their hearts, eyes, and ears. They enjoy practices or have prejudices contrary to what God teaches. They have motives for rejecting Bible teaching, so they satisfy their own minds that it is not true.
If we do not have a burning desire for truth, God will not force us to accept the truth. He will let us be lost (cf. 2 Thess. 2:10-12; 2 Tim. 4:2-4; John 3:19-21).
(See also 2 Cor. 13:5; 1 Thess. 5:21,22; Prov. 18:13; 23:23; 15:10; Luke 8:15; 1 Sam. 3:9,10.)
C. Respect the Bible as Being Verbally & Infallibly Inspired.
If a person doubts that the Bible is God’s infallible word, he is much more likely to disagree or reject it.
The Bible is from God.
2 Timothy 3:16,17 – All scripture is inspired by God to teach us and provide us to all good works.
1 Thessalonians 2:13 – It is the word of God not of men (cf. Gal. 1:11,12).
1 Corinthians 14:37 – Paul wrote the commands of the Lord. To reject any command is to reject the will of God.
(See also Eph. 3:3-5; Luke 10:16; 2 Peter 1:20,21.)
The Bible is verbally inspired.
Some people believe that God just gave the inspired men ideas, then let them explain them as they saw fit. This belief leaves room for error in the way the men expressed the ideas. “Verbal” inspiration means that every word written by the inspired writers was exactly the word God wanted.
1 Corinthians 2:10-13 – The Spirit guided men so they received, not just the ideas from God, but also the words from God.
Deuteronomy 18:18,19 – God put His words in the prophet’s mouth, so the prophet spoke (or wrote) the very words chosen by God Himself.
God gave the inspired men the very words they used to express the inspired ideas.
(See 1 Cor. 2:3-5; Matt. 10:19,20; 2 Sam. 23:1,2; Ex. 24:3,4,7; Isa. 51:l6; Jer. 1:5-9.)
The Bible is infallible
The message of the inspired writers cannot possibly be wrong because God does not make mistakes.
Psalm 119:128 – God’s word is always true and right.
Titus 1:2 – God cannot lie or be wrong.
Matthew 22:32; Galatians 3:16 – The Scriptures are so accurate that we can rely even on the tense of the verbs and the plurality or singularity of words.
We should approach the Bible with faith that every word is exactly right and true, otherwise we may reject its teaching.
(Cf. John 17:17; Psalm 33:4; 19:8; 147:4,5; Rom. 3:4; Job 37:16; Num. 23:19; Heb. 6:18; Deut. 18:20-22).
D. Believe that the Bible Can Be Understood.
Some believe that the Bible can be understood only by specially-trained preachers or priests, but not by the average person. As a result, they approach the Bible convinced they will never understand it, they put forth only a half-hearted effort, and of course they do not understand.
Mark 12:37; Acts 17:11 – Inspired teachings were addressed to the common people, not to some special elite group. (See also Gal. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1; 5:27; 2 Peter 1:1; Rev. 1:4.)
Mark 7:14 – Jesus required everyone among the great crowds of people to understand His teaching.
2 Timothy 3:16,17 – The Scriptures are profitable to teach and provide to all good works. What profit would they be if we could not understand?
People were expected to understand the written word (Eph. 5:17). Instead of just accepting whatever preachers say, people should use the scriptures to check out the teachers (Acts 11:17).
(See also 1 Cor. 14:33; Eph. 3:3-5; Isa. 55:11; 35:8; John 20:30,31; 8:32; Prov. 2:1-12; Psalm 19:7ff; 119:105; Col. 1:9-11; 2 Peter 3:15,16.)
Part II: Principles of Bible Authority
Luke 8:18 warns us to take heed how we hear. Likewise, we must take heed how we study the Bible. To know how to study, we must understand the principles God uses to teach us. [2 Tim. 2:15]
A. God’s Commands for Us Today Are Revealed in the New Testament
Old Testament laws are not binding authority today.
The fact that a practice was acceptable under the Old Testament does not prove it is acceptable today.
Hebrews 10:9,10 – Because the first covenant (will) did not provide complete forgiveness of sins (v3,4), Jesus took it away and established the second.
Colossians 2:14,16 – Jesus’ death blotted out the old law, so we are not bound by such regulations as unclean meats, feast days, and the sabbath.
Galatians 3:24,25 – The law was a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. Now we are no longer under the schoolmaster.
To illustrate, formerly our forefathers were under the laws of Great Britain then under the Articles of Confederation. Now that the Constitution has come, those previous legal systems are no longer binding. So today, anyone who seeks to bind the Law of Moses has fallen from grace (Gal. 5:1-4).
Many Old Testament practices are nowhere authorized in the New Testament, including animal sacrifices, Levitical priesthood, tithing, seventh-day Sabbath, circumcision, instrumental music, feast days, etc. However, many commands today are similar to those in the Old Testament because they are repeated in the New Testament.
(See also Rom. 7:1-7; Eph. 2:11-18; Heb. 8:6-13; 9:15-20; 7:11-25; Jer. 31:31-34.)
However, even though the Old Testament is not binding as law, still much good can come from studying it.
Old Testament Scriptures were written for our learning (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6,11). We can learn how to use the Old Testament by considering Bible examples of how first-century Christians used it.
History – The Old Testament records the Creation (Gen. 1 & 2), and God’s dealings with man until the coming of Jesus. Many New Testament passages assume we believe these historical records (Acts 7; Heb. 11; etc.).
Evidence – The Old Testament provides abundant evidence for the existence of God, the inspiration of the Bible, and the Deity of Jesus. This includes: (1) The accuracy of the Bible in history, geography, and science; (2) Fulfilled prophecy (see John 5:39; Acts 3:24); (3) The unity of the Bible – harmony between Old Testament and New Testament.
Unchanging Principles – Although God’s laws have changed, many facts about the Universe, the nature of man, and the nature of God do not change (Heb. 13:8). For example, the Old Testament shows that men are tempted, often sin, and need forgiveness (Rom. 3:9-23; 1 Cor. 10:1-12).
Appreciation and Understanding of the New Testament – Old Testament prophecies help us understand the New Testament (cf. Isa. 53; Acts 15:14-18). Further, when New Testament commands are the same as the Old, the Old helps us understand the New (cf. Heb. 11). And when the two systems differ, the disadvantages of the Old help us appreciate the New (Heb. 10:3,4; Rom. 3:20).
While we should not use the Old Testament to justify our practices today, neither should we neglect to study it. We can never fully appreciate and understand God’s dealings with us unless we study the Old Testament.
B. In the Bible, God Uses Three Basic Methods to Reveal His Will.
We often use various methods to communicate or teach others. Likewise God uses these general methods:
1. Commands and direct statements
1 Corinthians 14:37 – Paul wrote commands of the Lord. Many other passages also mention the importance of commands (John 14:15,21-24; 15:14; 1 John 5:3; 2:3,4; Matt. 28:18-20).
The Bible uses commands in teaching us about such subjects as baptism (Acts 10:48), love (Matt. 22:37-40), the Lord’s supper (1 Cor. 11:23-25), etc. [Eph. 6:2; 1 Cor. 16:1,2]
2. Examples and illustrations
Instead of directly commanding us to do something, God sometimes tells us indirectly by giving an instance in which Christians acted by His guidance. We are expected to imitate or follow these examples.
1 Peter 2:21,22 – Jesus left an example we should follow. (Phil. 2:5; Matt. 10:24,25; 16:24; 1 John 2:6)
Philippians 3:17; 4:9 – Imitate Paul’s example as a pattern. Do the things seen in him as well as things heard from him. (1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Tim. 1:16; 1 Cor. 4:16; 2 Thess. 3:7,9; 2 Tim. 3:10; Heb. 6:12)
Acts 15:5-11 – Peter taught others to imitate his example in teaching Gentiles.
Specifically, we can learn much about salvation from examples of conversion in the book of Acts. Still other Bible examples teach us about faith (Heb. 11:1-12:4; James 5:10,11), the action of baptism (Acts 8:35-39), the day for the Lord’s supper (Acts 20:7), and plurality of elders (Acts 14:23). (Cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-12; Heb. 4:11; 2 Peter 2:6; Luke 10:30-37.)
3. Logical necessary conclusions (“necessary inferences” or “Scriptural reasoning”)
Some truths are not directly or expressly stated yet they necessarily follow as a logical consequence of what is stated. For example, if I tell you my birthday, you can determine my age.
Acts 17:1-3 – Paul’s custom was to reason from the Scriptures to convince Jews that Jesus was Christ, yet the prophecies he used did not directly state the conclusion. [Acts 2:22-36; 18:4,19; 19:8,9; 28:23; Isa. 1:18; 1 Peter 3:15]
Matthew 19:3-9 – Jesus used God’s statement about marriage between two people to reach an unstated conclusion that divorce (not for fornication) displeases God and remarriage afterwards is adultery.
Hebrews 7:11-18 – The Old Testament allowed priests only of the tribe of Levi, but it predicted a priest of the tribe of Judah. The necessary conclusion was that the law would change. (For other examples see Acts 11:1-18; 15:6-21; Gal. 3:10-12; 1 Cor. 15:12-19; Matt. 22:23-32; 21:28-46; 22:41-46.)
Further, all Biblical parables requiring reasoning to understand the implied lesson (Matt. 16:5-12; 25:14-30; Mark 4:33,34; etc.)
Lessons we learn by necessary Scriptural reasoning are: babies should not be baptized because they cannot hear, believe, repent, and confess (John 6:44,45; Mark 16:15,16; Acts 2:38; etc.); the church has no earthly headquarters (Eph. 1:22,23 with Heb. 8:1); the command to assemble authorizes a place to assemble (Heb. 10:25), etc.
Mature Christians must use wisdom to apply the principles of God’s word to specific situations (Heb. 5:14). As in a math problem, we “add up” the information given to reach a conclusion.
C. God’s Word Completely Reveals His Will for Us.
Some people think the Bible speaks religious truth but not all religious truth. They think activities that please God, but are not found in the gospel, can be determined by other authorities (church councils, human creeds, preachers, tradition, modern revelations, etc.).
John 16:13 – The Holy Spirit guided the apostles into ALL truth. If anyone claims to have a doctrine from God, but it is not found in the Scriptures, it is not true!
2 Peter 1:3 – Through the knowledge of Jesus, God’s power grants us all things pertaining to a godly life. God’s word may not tell how to excel in sports, business, or politics, but it tells everything we need to know about how to please God.
2 Timothy 3:16,17 – The Scriptures instruct and provide us completely to every good work. They may not answer every speculative question men may have (Deut. 29:29), but they tell us all we need to do to please God.
The gospel reveals the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:20,27). No man can reveal new truths from God or new ways to please God that are not found in the Scriptures.
D. Only Divine Authority, not Human Authority, Is Acceptable in Religion.
When a practice in not included in what God has authorized, should we participate in it or not? Remember, the Scriptures provide us to every good work. What about works it does not provide? Consider the Bible teaching:
The Bible teaching about wisdom
Isaiah 55:8,9 – God’s thoughts and ways are so different from ours – so completely higher than ours – that we cannot possibly know what He wants without revelation. [Luke 16:15]
Jeremiah 10:23 – The way of man is not in himself. Man is not wise enough to direct his paths without Divine guidance.
Proverbs 14:12 – Ways that seem right to us, result in death. This is why we must not follow human wisdom in religion.
1 Corinthians 1:21-24; 2:5 – Human wisdom leads men to reject God’s will. We must follow God’s wisdom, but it is completely revealed in the Scriptures.
Do not add to nor take from God’s word (Rev. 22:18,19). To practice things not found in the word is to follow human wisdom. This displeases God. [Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:6]
The Bible teaching about worship
John 4:23,24 – Worship God in spirit and truth. God’s word is truth (John 17:17) and provides us with all truth (John 16:13). Hence, we must not worship in any way not revealed in God’s word.
Matthew 15:9,13 – Worship is vain (worthless) when based on human doctrines. But every practice not from God must be from man. If God did not originate it, man did. Since the Bible includes everything God revealed, practices not revealed in the Bible must be human in origin and therefore vain.
Worship is intended to please and glorify God. We respect Him by doing what He says. To do what men say is to respect human wisdom, not God’s wisdom. Note the example in Lev. 10:1-3.
The Bible teaching about love
Matthew 22:37 – The greatest command is to love God completely. Love leads us to obey God’s commands (John 14:15; 1 John 5:3). But all His commands are in the Bible. Hence, love teaches us to do only what we find in the Bible. To follow human doctrines shows love, not for God, but for men.
People often defend their practices by saying “I think it’s beautiful,” or “We’re satisfied with it.” But this is irrelevant when we are serving God. Does a man show love for his wife by getting her a power tool for her birthday because he wants it? We serve God by offering what HE likes, and that is completely revealed in the Bible.
The Bible teaching about faith
We cannot please God without faith (Heb. 11:6). But we must walk by faith (2 Cor. 5:7). Faith is a way of walking or living that must be demonstrated in action. [Gal. 2:20; 5:6; James 2:14-26; Heb. 11]
Romans 10:17 – Faith comes by hearing God’s word. The only way to know God’s will is by what He has revealed. To practice things not revealed is to fail to walk by faith.
Proverbs 3:5,6 – If we trust in the Lord, we let Him direct our paths. We do not lean on our own understanding. Human wisdom is not adequate to determine God’s will.
If a man has complete faith in his doctor and not in himself, would he reject the doctor’s prescription and follow his own? No, that shows faith in self instead of the doctor.
The teachings that we follow are a demonstration of whom we trust. To practice things not found in the Bible is to trust human wisdom instead of God’s.
The Bible teaching about authority
2 John 9 – Whoever does not abide in Jesus’ teaching does not have God. To have God, we must abide in the teaching. To practice things not found in Jesus’ teaching would separate us from Him.
Galatians 1:8,9 – Any man is accursed if he preaches a gospel that differs from what inspired men taught in the first century.
God never intended for His word to itemize everything we should not practice. Instead He tells us what He DOES want. Then He forbids our practicing things He has not authorized. Instead of asking “Where does God forbid this act?” we ought to ask, “Where does God tell us to do this act?” If an act is not included in what He said to do, we should leave it alone.
[Col. 3:17; 1 Peter 4:11; 1 Cor. 4:6; 2 Cor. 10:18; Rom. 10:1-3; Col. 2:8]
E. God May Teach in General or Specific Terms.
Our practices must fit the definition or fall within the meaning of the instructions God has given. However, people sometimes misunderstand Scripture because they fail to distinguish specific language from general language.
A statement of the principle
Specific authority: God has told us not to practice things that do not fit the meaning of His instructions. So when He wants us to do a thing in a particular way, He instructs us by choosing words that are specific or narrow (limited, restricted, exclusive) in their meaning. If we then do things differently, outside the limits of the meaning of the terms He uses, we displease Him.
General authority: When God wants to leave men free to choose from several alternative ways of doing a thing, He instructs us with words that are more general or broad (inclusive, comprehensive, all-encompassing) in their meaning. We still must do only what fits the instruction, but we are free to choose any of the various alternatives that fit. Any such choice would be acceptable because we would still be doing what God said.
Applications of the Principle
Noah and the ark – Gen. 6:14
God told Noah to make an ark of gopher wood. Metal, pine, walnut, etc., do not fit the definition of gopher wood. They constitute different kinds of materials. God did not expressly say not to use them, but He excluded them by saying “gopher wood” and remaining silent about metal, pine, etc.
Had God wanted to leave Noah free to use any kind of material, He could simply have said to make an ark, and specified no material at all. Then Noah could have chosen any kind of material and He would still have been obeying God. But when God specified the material, the use of any other material would have been disobedience.
On the other hand, there are many things a person can do that would fit the definition of “making” an ark. He might use a hammer and saw, or pegs and glue. None of these things are specifically mentioned, but they would have been acceptable because, while using them, Noah would still be doing what God said to do.
Going to preach the gospel – Mark 16:15
God said to go preach the gospel to every creature. If we preach man-made doctrines, we are not preaching the gospel. Therefore, to preach them is unacceptable.
On the other hand, there are many ways a person might “go” into all the world. He might walk, ride a donkey, car, chariot, plane, etc. These things may not be specifically mentioned, but any or all of them would be acceptable because they fit the definition of “going”.
In the same way, there are many things a person could do that would constitute preaching the gospel. He might speak to a group of people, write them a letter, divide them up into classes, speak over radio or TV or write on a blackboard or overhead projector. All such would fit the meaning of what God said to do.
Likewise, many other things are wrong in religion, though nowhere specifically forbidden, because they do not fit what God specifically said to do. Other things are acceptable, though nowhere specifically mentioned, because they do fit general instructions in God’s word. Study the chart below for other examples.