Understanding Scripture


Studying Scripture -  some tips and notes


1.  The foundations    2. The central message 3. The purpose     
 4. Some tips     5. Typology     6. Some tools       7.  Paradoxes     8. Finally

The Bible is God's written word to the human race. In it He reveals things that otherwise we would not know. However this does not mean that everything within it can be, or is, easily understood by all. This article is an attempt to help believers to study scripture for themselves, and to give some guidelines in their study. This is not an exhaustive treatment of the issue, but, I hope, a helpful one. The main emphasis I wish to make is:  in the final analysis we can only understand Scripture properly as the Spirit of God teaches us and as we receive it from Him in all humility.

1. The Foundations

We must acknowledge that the Bible is God’s Word, inspired by the Spirit, (II Tim.3: 16; II Pet.1: 20-21) and as such cannot be completely understood by the rational methods of man’s mind. Any attempt to do so will result in error and unbelief in the true and living God. The natural man cannot discern the things that are from God, and unless God opens our eyes we can never come to a proper understanding of the truth. Only the Holy Spirit can give true understanding, and lead us into all truth.(Cf. Jn.16: 13; I Cor.2: 12-16).

In order to have the Spirit reveal these things to us we must therefore have the Spirit in our lives. In other words we must be born again. If we do not have the Spirit of Christ we are none of His (Rom.8: 9). In fact the whole of Romans chapter 8 deals with this issue of being in the Spirit or in the flesh. In any aspect of Christian living the principle is the same: we can only know the things of God through His Spirit and never through any human effort.  Also, we must recognise that, not only must we have the Spirit of God, but we must also walk in the Spirit, if we are to have God revealing things to us. Take for example Abraham. On one particular occasion God said this: 



“And the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do; Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?  For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgement; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.”

 Gen.18: 17-19

We see that the reason for God revealing the destruction of Sodom and the other cities of the plain, was directly linked to Abraham’s OBEDIENCE to the ways of the Lord. In the New Testament we read that Peter says that God gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey Him. (Acts 5:32) .

“If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.”
John 17:7

“For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man, which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.  Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit, which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.”

 I Cor.2: 11-16

So we see that knowing the doctrine (Greek= instruction) is dependent on doing His will. Note it is the doing and not just knowing God’s will that is in view here. Finally in this section we have to recognise once more our inability to know anything apart from God. Therefore as James puts it:

“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”

James 1:5



2. The Central message of the Bible.

Moving on from the previous thoughts we consider some more basic truths that we have to understand if we are to study God’s book aright. Although written by over forty human authors, and over some 1600 years there is a unity in the Bible’s message: it is God’s dealings with the human race. There are many messages, but the central message of the Bible is Jesus Christ: the scriptures speak of HIM, from start to finish. Consider the following:

Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, we have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

 Jn.1: 45

“For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me.”

  Jn. 5:46

“Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken:  Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?  And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” 

Lk.24:25-27

These scriptures clearly show that the OT scriptures spoke of Christ. Did not Jesus say that Abraham rejoiced to see His day? (Jn.8: 56). The NT writings are full of Christ; just a casual reading can leave no one in any doubt about that. Jesus Christ is indeed the pre-eminent one. From the first chapter of Genesis to the last chapter in Revelation the central message is Jesus Christ. The law foreshadows Christ, the types typify Christ, the prophets prophesy Christ, the Gospels show the incarnate Christ, Acts shows the exploits of the risen Christ, the epistles teach Christ and Revelation shows the glory of Christ.

It is no wonder that the devil seeks to undermine the authority of scripture. For with each blow of unbelief Christ is ‘robbed’ of his rightful place amongst men’s thoughts.  We ignore this truth at our peril. (It goes, I hope, without saying that there is no contradiction at all in scripture; there are apparent contradictions, which we call paradoxes. These are dealt with in the final section below.)

It is worth saying that in studying the Bible understanding the difference between the two covenants (Old and New) is of vital importance to a proper view of scripture. It is always best to understand the clear light of the NT before venturing into the Old. In concluding this section I finish with a well-known saying, but one, which is nonetheless true:

The New is in the Old contained, the Old is by  the New explained.
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3. The purpose of the Bible

In writing a book God must have had some definite purpose behind it. We are left in no doubt as to that purpose. For in the scriptures themselves we read what it is.


“And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”

  II Tim.3: 15-16

We see then that the scriptures make us wise unto salvation. The whole human race is dead in trespasses and sin and through the finished work of Jesus Christ we can have salvation from our sins and the judgement to come.  The Bible doesn't give us salvation  rather it makes us wise unto it; one problem with scripture is that  it can become a god to the Christian, we must always keep our hearts on the God of the Bible rather than the Bible of God.

But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have [eternal] life through his name.” 

Jn.20: 31

Dear reader, have you truly believed on Jesus and know the forgiveness of sins and have the true life that is only found in HIM? If not then that is your greatest need and the rest of this article is of little value until you yield your life to the living Christ.

The scriptures are then given to instruct, correct, and if necessary reprove those who name the name of Christ.  We are no longer our own but we belong to Christ, and as such we have to live according to His ways. The scriptures teach us what the Lord expects from us so that we can become conformed to His image (e.g. Rom.8: 29; Eph.4: 11-15

4. Some tips

Knowing the salvation of God and His purpose for our lives we can then move onto looking at some tips on studying scripture. At the outset I would like to make it clear that these are in no way meant to be  ‘mechanical’ methods, but rather guiding principles when studying. Once more I will say that only the Spirit of God can give us a true understanding

1. No part of scripture can contradict another part, but is always in harmony with it. This naturally follows given that the Bible is God’s Word. If there are parts of scripture that appear to be contradictory then it is our understanding that is at fault. (See section on ‘paradoxes’ below).

2. Because of its unity the Bible, is its own commentary . Thus to understand the book we must allow scripture to interpret itself. (I Cor.2: 13). As an aside Spurgeon once said,  “ The Bible throws great light upon the commentaries.” We should also note that the Bible is all-sufficient.  That is we do not need extra-biblical sources for us to understand its essential spiritual content.

3. Context determines meaning; ‘a verse out of context is a pretext’, as the old   saying goes. You can prove anything from scripture if you ‘wrest’ them. As Peter puts it. (II Pet.3: 16). Take a simple example:


“My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

  Jms. 2:1

Now just to take this portion of scripture on its own simply means that we are not to have faith in Christ at all! This is obvious nonsense, so what does the passage mean? Well we must read its context:


My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.

James is saying that we must not have respect of persons if we have true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; a different matter altogether!

An interesting quote from Wycliffe is apt at this stage.

It shall greatly help ye to understand Scripture If thou mark not only what is spoken or written but of whom and to whom, with what words, at what time, Where to what intent with what circumstances, considering what goeth before and what followeth.

It was said of Campbell Morgan, a great Bible teacher, that before he gave an exposition on a book of the Bible, he would read it through 100 times first! The lesson? Get to know the context of the passage you are studying well.

4. To obtain the fullest teaching on any topic all the scriptures on that subject need to be collected together and compared . Failure to do so will result in a misunderstanding of what God had in mind. Let’s take an example.


Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

 Mtt.7: 7-8


On its own this passage seems that Jesus is writing a blank cheque for our wants. Yet if we look at other scriptures we see that this is far from the case. The reader is directed to take a look at the following, and to find other scriptures relating to asking.  Jms.4: 3; Jn.16: 23;Mk.11: 24;Jn.15: 27;I Jn.5: 14. 

It is a good exercise to choose a topic then read the Bible through making your own notes when you come across that topic, when you’ve finished mediate on those scriptures and see what you’ve learnt.  No one said Bible study would be quick!

The clearer passages are to explain the obscure ones, not vice versa. Usually this will mean: understand the OT in the light of the NT, and never the other way round!

5. Consider how scripture uses particular words . Beware the English dictionary though, for the Bible does not necessarily use words with the same meaning that we do in our cultural setting. With Bible versions some words change their meaning since the translation was done; one example of changed meaning is the word ‘prevent’ in I Thess.4: 15. In 17th Century English the word meant ‘go before’  but the past four centuries have seen this word change its sense. By using a good study Bible such as Newberry’s  ‘The English man’s Bible’ such difficulties will be resolved.

This immediately raises the question of Bible versions, but this is not the place to consider the matter. Suffice it to say that after 30 years of personal Bible study I have found the KJV (1611*) the most reliable in the English language, and since many study aids are linked to the AV this version is very accessible to the student.  That is not to say that other versions have no value. Sometimes one version may not quite phrase a particular passage in a clear light, then by comparing other translations it may help one to a better understanding of what the writer was saying.  One passage in particular the AV seems a bit clumsy with (to our 21st century ears anyway) is I Cor.7: 32-40. Read it in the AV and then with other translations and see what you notice! (* the KJV in use today is the 1769 revision).

The writers did not always use words in their strict cultural sense; sometimes they took a word and used it with a new meaning. The way to understand what the writer meant us to understand is to collect and compare all the scriptures that use this word, and in what context as mentioned earlier.  Also good Greek dictionaries will help. There are three that I would recommend; they are Strong’s and Young’s analytical concordances, and Vine’s expository dictionary.

Consider the differences between literal and non-literal words/phrases. All languages use non-literal ideas, and one has to be vary careful lest we push words to meanings they were never intended to have. For example in Lk10: 31 Jesus uses the words “by chance” in the parable of the Good Samaritan. This does not mean that Jesus was denying Divine Providence, but rather just a saying meaning that the direction of the Samaritan was without any particular design.

Watch out for figures of speech, ironical/sarcastic language and also hyperbole. By doing so many seemingly difficult passages will make sense! For example Jesus talked about cutting of off the hands etc if they offend. Clearly He did not mean this literally, because the disciples didn’t cut off their hands! What do you think He meant? (It is good to think about these matters.)

6. There are several principles (laws) of interpretation that Bible students over the centuries have laid out. Again they are not meant to be mechanical rules, but guidelines Here are some of those principles.

 a)  The ‘law’ of first mention.

The first mention of any subject in scripture usually contains the essential elements of that subject that are later developed in scripture. Take for example the first prophecy concerning Christ;

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

Gen. 3; 15

Here we see :

(i)     God took the initiative and made the promise of Christ. Thus we see Salvation is of God
(ii)    Salvation was to come through the seed of a woman, i.e. the saviour was to become a man
(iii)   Satan would bruise the saviour, a clear reference to the cross. (He was bruised for our iniquities….) 
(iv)  The saviour would ultimately destroy the devil.

Looking at the above points, can you think of other scriptures that show the development of this promise?


b) The ‘law ‘ of progressive mention.

Throughout scripture there is an orderly development of the main themes. This follows on from the previously discussed principle. Take a very simple, and this is by no means an exhaustive treatment, but an illustrative example nonetheless. 


Consider Jesus the Lamb; Gen.22: 18 the lamb is seen in prophecy; Ex.12 the lamb is seen in type, Isa.53: the lamb is seen as a person; Jn.1: 29 the lamb is seen by all; I Pet 1:19 the lamb is seen crucified; Rev.5: 6 the lamb is seen glorified. There are other scriptures too that the reader could find to show this development. 

An interesting exercise that the reader is encouraged to try:  trace the development of the prophecies concerning Christ from Gen.3: 15 to Malachi, and see how God reveals more of the Saviour as time marches on, and note the increase in detail as the NT era approaches.

c). The ‘law’ of full mention.

Each of the Bible's main themes is given a complete treatment in a systematic way. The classic example of this is faith, which is dealt with in Heb.11. This chapter is so well known that it seems pointless to go over it. But just look briefly at this eleventh chapter. At the start we have Faith defined: “ the substance (=ground) of things hoped for the evidence (=confidence) of things not seen; then we have the necessity of faith (without it is impossible to please God); we then have the roll call of faith, the OT examples; then finally we have the perfection of faith.


Another example is that of II Cor. 8-9, where the topic is on giving. On this occasion Paul does not give a textbook treatment of giving, but rather exhorts the Corinthians to give by applying general principles, and  considering the application. In scripture that is how truth is usually shown: principles working out in reality.

5. Typology

Typology is a broad term that refers to anything, which can be used to illustrate spiritual truth; these can be events, God-given instructions, inanimate objects etc. In the NT the various words that are used to note types are: figure (several different Greek words) and shadow. Examples of this would include Israel’s departure from Egypt, the sacrificial system and so on. Here are two examples that the NT specifically highlights. (There are others!)

Example 1


Once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure [Greek =ANTITYPE] whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

I Pet.3: 20-21


Here the apostle says that the flood of Noah’s day is a type (illustration) of salvation in Christ by the baptism in the Spirit

Example 2

For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem, which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.

Gal.4: 22- 26


Paul here uses the story of Sarah and Hagar to illustrate the two covenants: the old, legal one by Hagar and the new by Sarah.  It is worth saying again that in studying the Bible understanding the difference between the two covenants is of vital importance. A note here to emphasise the importance of the difference between the Old and New Covenants would be apt.

The Old Covenant was a legal code given to Israel at Sinai. It contained many laws, ceremonies and so on.  The essence of it was that it was external religion. (The book of Hebrews calls them carnal ordinances  Heb. 9:10). The New Covenant, however is internal, that is to do the life of God being expressed in people through His Spirit and not by external law.  (Heb.8: 8-13; Rom.13: 8-10) It is sad that many Christian whilst having the Spirit insist on being entangled in some form of legal bondage. A full study of the subject here is not possible, but the epistle to Galatians is clear on this issue. Christ has redeemed us from the law and we are to walk in the Spirit, and so as  not to fulfil the desires of the flesh.


Example 3

Perhaps the best-known type is the Tabernacle and its sacrificial system. When looked  at in light of the teaching in Hebrews it gives a wonderful insight to the person and work of the Lord Jesus. There are plenty of good sources the student can access on this topic. It must be said that types are only illustrations and they should never be the foundations for doctrine- the clearer passages do that. Once more scripture must be compared to ensure a correct understanding of the types in question.

 

6. Some tools

It was  said  earlier “[we] do not need extra-biblical sources for us to understand it…” but sometimes there are certain books, that are the result of other men’s godly studies, which can help us to understand certain aspects of the Bible. Some well tried ones:

1. Concordances: Young’s and/or Strong’s to find passages, or the original words and meanings.

2. Vine’s (NT) and Wilson’s (OT) expository dictionaries give a more detailed look at the words of scripture and their meaning.

3. Study Bible: perhaps the best analytical one is Newberry; Thompson’s chain reference is good for topical study.

4. The Treasury of scripture knowledge has cross references for every verse in the Bible, some 500 000 references in total, a good investment!

5. Commentaries are to be treated with great care! Note the comments made earlier.  They can be useful, especially for historical context and cultural background, but be very careful the commentaries are not inspired, let alone infallible. Remember writers write from their own theological perspective, E.g. Calvinism, pre-millennialism, so take that into account.

6. Dictionaries etc. can be useful for background detail but be careful, many have contributions by liberal scholars.

7. Software. There is a vast quantity of computer study aids. The one I recommend is the ‘Bible Online’ available from Answers in Genesis. It has many different versions for comparison and excellent search facilities amongst other useful things.

http://www.onlinebible.com/html/eng/index.htm
 
 

7. Paradoxes

From time to time there are certain passages of scripture that appear to contradict, or at least be in conflict, with another passage, or passages. As stated in the first guiding principle Scripture is always in harmony with and can not contradict itself. Any passage(s) that give that impression are properly called paradoxes, and the obvious question is: how do they harmonise with the rest of scripture?

The first thing to say is that it is not my desire, or intent, to get involved in arguments with people just to ‘prove’ that the Bible is correct. Usually people only involve themselves in such fruitless discussions because they want to avoid the real issue of their standing with God and their need to repent of sin. However for many people such paradoxes are a problem and can be a genuine stumbling block in their lives. It is to these people, and those who want to know their Bibles better that I address in this section.

The first thing to say is that paradoxes of scripture have been recognised ever since the canon of scripture was completed; there is nothing new here! Therefore many of them have already been resolved and satisfactory answers given, it is a question of looking up the right sources!  However some may wish to think through the paradoxes for themselves, so here are some of my thoughts, but they are not infallible at all.

If it is a question of chronology then the first question to ask is “what calendar is the writer using?” for example the differences in the chronology of Daniel or Ezekiel, and the corresponding events in Kings or Chronicles is that the former uses the Babylonian method of reckoning, and the later the Jewish method. Thus any differences are easily resolved. 

Two passages relating to the same event can sometimes be easily reconciled by the fact that one writer may omit some details, which the other includes. For example Mtt.8: 28 we see two men possessed, the parallel passage in Mk.5: 2 only one is mentioned. There is no contradiction simply because Mark’s account only concentrates on one of the men.

Events that appear at different times. For example Jesus overthrowing the money tables in the temple. In John’s account (Jn.2: 13-17) this happened at the start of the Lord’s earthly ministry, yet in the synoptics at the end of His earthly ministry. (Eg.Mtt.21: 12-13). The simple fact is that this cleansing of the temple happened twice. Once at the start, and once at the end of the Lord’s earthly ministry. The synoptics mention the latter, and John the former, no contradiction at all!

It must be admitted that some paradoxes appear to have no resolution at all, no matter how hard one researches it. In such cases we have to say that we are not in possession of the full facts, and that our understanding is not complete. It is then we have to decide whether we trust God’s Word as being true or believe the fallen thoughts of men and accuse God of contradicting Himself!

Some people say that some paradoxes are a result of scribal errors in copying the text at some stage.  This is a difficult issue, because textual criticism is a highly technical subject, of which the average Christian knows nothing, and the experts don’t always agree either! What are we to make of this? Let us consider one passage where it is said that there was a scribal error that has lead to a paradox.

And it came to pass after forty years, that Absalom said unto the king, I pray thee, let me go and pay my vow, which I have vowed unto the LORD, in Hebron.

II Sam.15: 7  (AV)

The NIV has four years with a note saying that:  Some manuscripts have forty. *


The assumption is that since David’s reign was only forty years in total then this reference to Absolam, can not be forty as well, and so there must have been a scribal error. However there is a proper explanation without saying it was a scribal error.  Matthew Henry in his famous commentary gives a plausible solution:

We have here the breaking out of Absalom’s rebellion, which he had long been contriving. It is said to be after forty years,  II Sam 15:7.  But whence it is to be dated we are not told; not from David’s beginning his reign, for then it would fall in the last year of his life, which is not probable; but either from his first anointing by Samuel seven years before, or rather (I think) from the people’s desiring a king, and the first change of the government into a monarchy, which might be about ten years before David began to reign; it is fitly dated thence, to show that the same restless spirit was still working, and still they were given to change: as fond now of a new man as then of a new model. So it fell about the thirtieth year of David’s reign. Absalom’s plot being now ripe for execution.


The point here is that by a closer consideration of scripture we can find a resolution to the paradox without saying it must have been a scribal copying error.  It may be that in other cases such an approach will not result in a ‘neat’ solution. Personally I would prefer to leave the matter until one can be found without resorting to the ‘scribal’ error solution. To my way of thinking, if one concedes that one part of scripture is a result of scribal error then who is to say that other [more significant] parts are not? This issue needs a study in itself and this is not the right place to deal with it in full. [* My understanding is that the overwhelming textual evidence is for forty]

8. Finally

If anyone would like further help on any of the matters raised; for example if you have a paradox that you would like resolving and want to ask someone then feel free to email me using the link below, and I will try to give an answer, though of course, I cannot give a guarantee that I will have one!