Studying the Truth
This morning I had the privilege of speaking at the Los Angeles Men’s Bible Conference sponsored by the Los Angeles Bible Training School (LABTS) and The Master’s Seminary. The conference was organized by Pastor Carl Hargrove of Fairview Heights Baptist Church. The plenary speaker was Pastor H.B. Charles, Jr. (Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church) and workshop speakers were Pastors George Hurtt (Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church), Anthony Kidd (Westside Bible Church), and me. This year’s theme was What is Truth? and my assigned topic was Studying the Truth. Essentially my workshop was on Bible study methods. I encourage you to contact LABTS (323) 588-3711 and get the audio CDs of all the sessions when they become available. It was a great conference, and Pastor H.B. Charles, one of my favorite preachers, did not disappoint. God lit a spark for truth in the approximately 300 men who attended that prayerfully will ignite a greater longing for the truth in our churches in LA. Here is a cursory sample of the notes from my session:
READ TO UNDERSTAND THE WORD
In 2 Cor 1:13, the apostle Paul writes, “For we do not write you anything other than what you can read and also understand. But I hope that you will understand completely” (NET). This verse reveals what theologians call the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture. God inspired the Bible in such a way that He intends for the reader to be able to understand it. This doesn’t mean that it easy to understand. In fact , the Bible plainly says in some places that it isn’t (2 Pet 3:16). Yet far from discouraging us from trying to understand it, the Bible exhorts us to study hard like a workman. Someone has well said that “Revelation has come by way of inspiration, but illumination comes through perspiration.”
Reading the Bible accurately is a skill, and there are two ways to improve yours. (1) Take a class on Bible Study Methods and Hermeneutics (LABTS offers both) and (2) Read, read, and read! A good doctor, lawyer, and basketball player all have this in common—they all have spent hours, upon hours honing their skills to become good at what they do. If you hear someone who is skilled in interpreting the Word of God, don't assume that it came easily to them. Instead, recognize that they are doing what you should be striving to do—diligently laboring in the Word of God (2 Tim 2:15).
If asked to interpret the sentence “He killed her,” what would you say? Does it mean that a man murdered a woman? If you blurted out that answer without first checking the context in which the statement was made, you could likely misinterpret its meaning. For instance, what would that sentence mean if it was in the political section of the newspaper describing Barack Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton? It wouldn’t mean that anyone was dead, right? What if the same statement was in the sports section of the paper? It would be describing how a man scored a large victory in some battle of the sexes competition against a woman. Same words with radically different meanings. What changed? One thing—the context! Accurate readers learn how to read in context.
This workshop will cover three reading skills that you must work hard at practicing in order to improve your skill in interpreting the Bible accurately. All three skills have this in common. They show you how to read the Bible in context.
1st THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT: Read books of the Bible looking for clues to understand the historical circumstances surrounding the writing of the book. Find out why it was written. Keep a pen and paper in hand and jot down the historical clues you observe as you read through a book. Here’s an example from 2 Timothy:
- 2 Timothy 1:8 informs the reader that the apostle Paul is in jail;
- 1:12 that he is in jail for preaching the Gospel;
- 1:15 that in jail he was abandoned;
- 1:17 that he was in jail in Rome;
- 4:6 that his execution is imminent,
- 4:10, 14 that he was betrayed by Demas and Alexander;
- 4:16 says again how he was completely abandoned.
As you read 2 Timothy, you must feel the urgency in Paul’s swan song letter to his son in the faith, Timothy. From a dark prison cell, in stocks, abandoned, and betrayed, the great apostle to the Gentiles passionately writes to Timothy for this reason: that he would not shrink away from continuing to faithfully preach the Gospel of truth to the Gentiles even at the cost of his life! Oh, do we need young ministers to read and re-read this book!
In discerning the historical context, the reader discovers the prescriptive value of the book. Each book (and every word) in the Bible was inspired to address real historical people with real problems. When you learn why it was written, you learn which books of the Bible address the problems that we also face.
2nd THE THEMATIC CONTEXT: Each time you read a chapter of a book of the Bible, ask yourself, what did I just read? Jot down your answer as the title of the chapter. This technique allows you to outline the book you are reading, and this skill will enable you to describe the contents of what you are reading. Read the Bible looking to see how the author thematically or topically structures the book. Here’s an example: When you read through 1 Corinthians, observe and outline the thematic content. Here’s how: From reading 1 Cor 1:10-11, it is obvious that a delegation was sent from the church of Corinth (from Chloe’s people) to the apostle Paul with a letter of questions about problems they were having that they wanted him to answer. 1 Corinthians is comprised of his answers to their questions and problems. Each new section is marked (like sections in a newspaper) with the phrase “now concerning” or some equivalent (5:1, 7:1, 8:1, 11:17-18; 12:1, 15:12, 16:1).
- Chapters 1-4 are about resolving divisions in the church,
- Chapter 5-6 address immorality in the church
- Chapter 7 addresses questions about singleness, marriage and divorce
- Chapters 8-10 address gray area issues
- Chapter 11 addresses women’s roles in the church and the lord’s table
- Chapters 12-14 address the proper use of spiritual gifts
- Chapter 15 addresses questions about the resurrection
- Chapter 16 addresses how to give financially to the work of the Lord
Reading to discern the thematic content of books in the Bible will tell you what the various books teach. This will enable you to know where to turn in the Bible for the specific answers you’ll need in order to know God’s will and to live according to it.
3rd THE SYNTACTICAL CONTEXT: When you encounter important verses you don’t understand, after you have read them in their historical and thematic contexts, read them again in the context of their paragraph, asking the observation questions who, what, when, where, why, and how? Then answer those questions, starting, as need be, from the immediate context (the paragraph), the near (chapter), far (section of the book) and distant contexts (the whole book, all of the writings by that author, that Testament, or the entire Bible). Answering your observation questions in context is called exegesis. I use a method called block diagramming to help me at this step. You really want to make careful observations to allow the text to tell you what it is saying by how it says it.
Author Josh McDowell used to show his Bible study method students a crime scene and then ask them to write down as many clues as they could that would help to solve the crime. After years of doing this, one student noticed every key piece of evidence. Guess how he did it? He was a cop. Here’s the point, the more you train your mind to look for the keys in the text that will help you interpret the text, the better Bible student you will become. This method will help you, but you must practice, practice, and practice. And use good commentaries to check your conclusions.
In my workshop, I ran out of time before we got to the principle of applying the text, and that’s critical. The goal of Bible study isn’t to gain more head knowledge, but it is to transform our hearts to motivate us to love God and to learn how to do that.
Our churches are perishing for a lack of knowledge. We need men of God to commit to learning the Word of God in order to obey God for the glory of God. I pray that this study will encourage you to be such a Christian and to become a faithful workman at studying your Bible.
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