I spent the summer of 1979 working as a missionary in East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. I was given paperback New Testaments to bring to the people. Most of them had never had a copy in their own language, so this would be a special gift.
I will never forget the first time I distributed those Bibles. A long line formed. There was much rejoicing as the people took their copy of God’s word. At the end of the line stood an elderly woman. She endured the hot sun and a long wait, until it was finally her turn. I gave her a copy of God’s word in her language. She took that paperback New Testament in trembling hands and held it close to her heart. And I thought of all my Bibles at home gathering dust on the shelf.
She loved God’s word because she knew something of its power to change her life, to bring her to her Father, to make her more like the Son, to live for her glory. When this study is finished, I hope each of us will open our Bibles with hands which tremble just a bit at the awesome power and privilege which comes with the word of God today.
In this study we will examine nine keys to life-changing Bible study. We begin with the first and most crucial: Fulfill the purpose of God’s word.
Most things in life work best when they’re used according to their purpose. A power saw doesn’t make a good screwdriver or a blender a good oven. No one would play tennis with a football or sew with a hammer.
What is the purpose of the Bible? This is the single most important question we can ask in unlocking God’s word. Nearly all the problems people have in understanding the Bible start with misunderstandings of what the book is. You can understand the message of the Bible only when you know what it is and why it was written.
So, what is the Bible, and why is it so important that we study it? What principles for Bible study can we discover in answering these questions?
Prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21).
First and foremost, the Bible is God’s book. It is important that we study this book, because God wrote it. He used people to compose its words, but they were “carried along” by his Spirit. God created the Bible, for us.
This fact leads to an important Bible study principle: You can understand God’s word, for this is the intent of its Author. God gave you his word, and he wants to help you understand it. He wrote to reveal himself to you. He wants you to understand his book.
To help make this point, let’s look at the three most popular names for the Bible today. Each of them underscores the fact that the Bible is important as God’s book for us.
The Holy Bible
We usually call God’s book the “Holy Bible.” We should, because this is literally what the title means.
The word “bible” comes from Byblos, an ancient town n Phoenicia (on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, north of Israel). The town gave its name to the plant whose leaves were used to make the paper of the ancient world. From these “byblos” leaves books were produced. Incidentally, this plant was known to the Egyptians as “papyrus,” from which we get the word “paper.” The word “bible,” then, literally means “book.”
“Holy” means “set apart,” “sacred,” or “divine.” This word applies most fully to God, the Holy One (cf. Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8). Putting the two terms together, the “Holy Bible” is “God’s book.”
We often refer to the Bible as the “Scriptures.” This word means “writings,” and is sometimes used of the Bible for itself.
For instance, Paul advised Timothy that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Bible is the “writings” of God.
The word of God
This is the most frequent way the Bible describes itself. For instance, the writer of Hebrews described the Bible thus: “The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
The Bible is the “word of God” in that it gives us the very words of God. The Lord went to miraculous lengths to reveal this book, preserve it, and transmit it to us today. Obviously he wants us to understand what he has given us. It’s an astounding fact–the Creator of the universe and Lord of all eternity has written a book, and he wants you to study it!
A revealing book
The Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).
Why does God want you to understand his book? Because he wants you to know him personally. The Bible is an important book, for here God reveals himself to you. How has he done this?
How God reveals himself: the world and the word
You can tell a great deal about a person if you examine his or her work. And so the Psalmist sang, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). In our world we have evidence enough to believe that God is a purposeful, powerful, glorious Creator (cf. Acts 14:17).
However, there’s a problem. When Adam and Eve sinned by breaking God’s direct command, God’s creation was tainted by sin and no longer reveals him perfectly. As a result, we need more revelation today than the world of God. So God revealed himself to us in his written word, the Bible. And so the Bible is at the center of God’s revelation. Without the Scriptures we would know very little about Jesus. God’s word remains his chief way of revealing himself to us today.
How we meet God in the Bible
The Bible reveals our need for God: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). It shows us the result of this sin: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). And it reveals the proper punishment of all who sin: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).
Then the Bible reveals God’s answer to our need: “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'” (John 14:6). And the Bible promises that Jesus is our way to triumphant living: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
In the Bible God shows us our sin and its devastation, then he shows us his solution in Christ. God wants us to respond to this revelation by turning to Christ as our Savior and Lord. When we do this, in Christ we experience God. And the Bible leads us to a personal relationship with its Author.
This same process applies to any problem we have. When we study the Scriptures to find God’s answer to our need and we obey what they reveal to us, we experience God personally. We not only find his answer to our problem, but also the personal help of his Spirit. The Bible becomes our bridge to relationship with God.
An inspired book
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The word “inspire” means “to breathe into.” When we use this word about the Bible, we mean that God “breathed” his words to us. Here we discover another guiding principle for Bible study: we should approach the Bible as the very words of God. We can trust this book without hesitation. And we should study it with deep and humble reverence. The inspiration of the Bible means that the Bible is God’s very words for you.
How did God inspire the Scriptures? There are two sides to the story–the divine and the human.
The Bible’s divine side
The Bible clearly and consistently claims God for its Author. For instance, Paul said of his words, “The gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12). And he claimed that all Scripture is “inspired” by God (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible clearly claims divine authorship for itself.
The Bible’s human side
God “breathed” his word to us, but he did this through people. He did not shout the Bible in an audible voice from the sky or write it on heavenly paper and drop it to earth. He spoke both to us and through us in creating his word.
God employed several methods in using humans to write his word. Once he literally wrote his word for us, when he inscribed the Ten Commandments on stone for Moses (Ex. 31:18).
At times, God spoke audibly to humans, as when he called to Moses from the burning bush (Ex 3:4).
Sometimes God spoke through dreams, as when he guided Joseph the husband of Mary (Mt. 1:20).
Most often, however, the Lord used the minds and personalities of the biblical authors as his way of giving his word to us. They were historians, theologians, and authors. God used their personalities and guided their words to give us his word.
Relating the divine and human
How did God use people to get his word to us? Scholars call this subject “the question of inspiration.”
Sometimes he dictated his words to their human authors. The Old Testament (NIV) contains 167 passages where God’s spokesmen began their statement, “This is what the Lord says.” However, this is not the only way God revealed his word to us. The various biblical books reflect their authors’ vocabularies, writing styles, and goals.
A more accurate way to understand the entire Bible is the “verbal plenary” view of inspiration. “Verbal” emphasizes that the biblical words were inspired by God; “plenary” (meaning “all”) shows that God did this for every word of the Bible. This view emphasizes that God took the initiative in inspiring each of the individual words of the Bible, but he did this in such a way as to use the writers’ personalities as well.
How can the Bible be both divine and human? In the same way that Jesus was fully divine and fully human. If Jesus could be completely God without losing his humanity, the Bible can be fully God’s word and still be the work of humans. If Jesus could be fully human and yet Lord, the Bible can be the work of humans and yet God’s authoritative word.
Holding two truths together is essential with nearly every Christian doctrine, including the inspiration of the Bible. We know that God is three Persons and yet One. The Lord directs his world, but he also gives us freedom to make our own decisions. In the same way, God used humans to author his divine word. So we can trust that every word of the Bible is God’s word for us today.
An authoritative book
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (Matthew 24:35).
So far we’ve discovered three answers to our question, Why read the Bible? We should read it because it is God’s book, written for us; it is a revealing book, written to help us know God personally; and it is an inspired book, every word given by God himself.
Here’s a fourth fact: We should study the Bible because it is an authoritative book. Now we discover another guiding principle for Bible study: We must obey what we learn in God’s word. The Bible accomplishes God’s purpose for it only when we are obedient to the truths we find there. Three facts help us understand better what the authority of the Bible means for us and for our study of Scripture.
The Bible claims authority
The Scriptures consistently claim authority for their truths. Since it was inspired by God, the Bible communicates the authoritative words of the Lord (2 Timothy 3:16).
Biblical authority transcends time
The Scriptures were authoritative for their first readers, but they are still God’s authority for our lives today. Notice Isaiah 40:8: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”
Biblical authority is life-transforming
Power is not much good unless it serves a good purpose. The purpose of biblical authority is clear: To transform your life by a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. The Scriptures are empowered by the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus to you in a life-changing way.
A miraculous book
We have explored the spiritual facts behind the creation of God’s word. Now let’s survey briefly the historical side of the story. How were the books of the Bible written, and in what languages? How were these writings preserved? How were the books of the Bible chosen? When we learn more about the process God used to give us his word, we’ll see that its existence today is a miracle. And we’ll find one more reason to meet God in its pages.
The “paper” of the Bible
The most common “paper” of biblical times was the papyrus reed, a thin plant which grew to a height of 15 feet along the Nile River in Egypt (as we have seen, “paper” comes from “papyrus”). This reed was cut into strips which were interlaced and glued together, then these sheets were rolled into scrolls. Writing was usually done with brushes made from reeds, using a kind of carbon-liquid glue for ink. Papyrus was common and inexpensive, but it was also brittle and decayed quickly.
People sometimes wrote on clay tablets or baked pieces of pottery (called “ostraicon”) as well as rocks, wood, or metal. A sharp object served as a stylus or pen. When clay was used, it was inscribed and then baked to preserve the writing.
A more expensive and durable writing material was parchment. This was made from animal skins, usually sheep or goats. Parchment was perfected around 200 B.C., but was used mainly by the wealthy. Around A.D. 100, people began cutting scrolls of parchment or papyrus into sheets and stitching them together. This was called the “codex” (Latin for “block” or “book”), the ancestor of our book.
The original books of the Bible were apparently all written on papyrus. Since this material decayed quickly, none of these original writings exist today. However, the copies we possess are extremely trustworthy and have given us the words and message of the Bible with great accuracy, as we will see in a moment. As the church grew more prosperous over the centuries, Christians could afford parchment on which to copy the biblical books. The parchments, in codex form, are the earliest copies of the complete New Testament which we have today.
The languages of the Bible
Three languages were used to give us God’s word. Hebrew is the oldest of the three, and the language of most of the Old Testament. It is written from right to left, with no upper or lower cases. Biblical Hebrew consisted entirely of consonants; the vowels were added centuries later. Here is the Hebrew for Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”: הָאָרֶץ א בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת.
The second language of the Bible is Aramaic, a descendant of Hebrew. It was the common spoken language of the Jews in the latter years of the Old Testament era, and was used throughout the New Testament period as well. It is found in the Old Testament in three places: Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; and Daniel 2:4-7:28. Although they knew and used Hebrew, Aramaic was the language which Jesus and his disciples commonly spoke. Assorted Aramaic words are found scattered throughout the New Testament (for example, “Abba” for Father in Mark 14:36). Here is what John 3:16 would look like in Aramaic:
The third biblical language is Greek. By Jesus’ day, Greek was the universal written language of the Roman Empire, so it was the language in which the New Testament was written. However, the Greek of the New Testament was “koine” (meaning “common”), not the classical Greek of the cultured. It was more simple and straightforward than the stylistic literature of the highly educated, used so everyone could read the New Testament. Here is John 3:16 in GreeK:
Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ Θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν Υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς Αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ᾽ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
Don’t be concerned–we don’t have to know Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek to understand God’s word. Bible translators and scholars can help us here. God calls these scholars and uses their translations and commentaries because he wants us to understand his word today.
Preserving the Bible
Once God’s word was written, it had to be preserved for future readers. The originals, called “autographs” by scholars, were written on papyrus, which decayed easily. Therefore, they had to be copied accurately.
By God’s grace, we have excellent copies of the originals. We possess copies of entire biblical books, as well as parts of different passages. These copies, called “manuscripts,” are very numerous, and some are nearly as old as the originals.
For instance, we have a copy of part of the New Testament which was made only 40 years after the original. Copies of complete books were made only 300 years later. We possess 5,000 copies of the New Testament in ancient Greek, and 10,000 copies in other ancient languages. By comparison, our oldest manuscript of Caesar’s Gallic Wars was made 900 years after the original, and only nine or ten good copies of the book exist. Our earliest copy of Tacitus’ Histories was made 900 years after the original. Our oldest copies of Aristotle’s works were made 1,300 years after the originals.
Scholars have worked diligently to compare the various ancient copies of the Bible, and have given us a text which is so close to the original that no matter of faith or practice is in question. God revealed himself in his word and made certain that every generation would have that revelation to read. Because his word was copied accurately, we can trust the Bible we possess to be his word for us today.
Compiling the Old Testament
The word “canon” comes from a Hebrew word which means “reed” or “measuring rod.” Eventually the word stood for a catalog or list of books. The process by which the biblical books were chosen is called “canonization.” Here’s how it all happened.
Making the Old Testament From ancient times, the Jewish people believed that God revealed himself in writing. The Ten Commandments are an example of such early revelation. Written revelation was given by God and collected by the Jews in three stages. First came the Law, the religious regulations of the Jewish community. Soon stories of early Hebrew history were included as well. The whole section was called “Torah,” meaning “instruction.” It was later divided into five parts, called the “Pentateuch” or “five books,” and became the first five books of our Bible:
Next came the Prophets, called the “Nebiim” by the Jews. This section of the Bible included the writings of the prophets and also the history of their times. There are 21 of these books in our format, from Joshua to Malachi.
Last came the Writings. These books are called the “Ketubim” by the Jews. They may have grown from smaller, earlier writings. For instance, the individual Psalms were probably used first by the Jews in worship, then compiled into the Book of Psalms. The Jews list eleven books in this section, beginning with Psalms and closing with Ezra-Nehemiah and 1-2 Chronicles.
These books were compiled over centuries of use, and formally listed and arranged at the end of the first century A.D.
Between the testaments
Malachi, the last Old Testament book, was written around 400 B.C. The first Gospels were composed around A.D. 45-50. What happened in the meantime?
This question raises one of the most interesting issues in the story of the Bible. We are dealing with the subject of the “Apocrypha,” a story unfamiliar to many Protestants. The word “apocrypha” means “hidden” or “obscure.” With regard to the biblical canon, it refers to the 15 books which Catholics accept as Scripture but most Protestants reject as the inspired word of God.
The apocryphal books were probably written at the end of the Old Testament era. All are in Greek, though Sirach seems to have had a Hebrew original. The Jews in Alexandria, Egypt accepted these books as part of divine revelation. The Jews in Palestine never accepted them as Scripture, however, and all are rejected in Judaism today.
When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, one to three centuries before Christ, these books were included and were eventually accepted by the Roman Catholic Church. But Protestants noted that none of them are quoted specifically in the New Testament. They also cited the more scholarly early church fathers who maintained a sharp distinction between the Hebrew Old Testament and these Greek additions. They concluded that these books, while interesting and informative, should not be considered divine revelation. Today, most Protestant Bibles exclude these books, while Catholics and many Episcopalians use them.
Making the New Testament
The early Christians composed the books we call the New Testament for a variety of reasons. Their churches needed eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life and work before the apostles died; missionaries needed written records of the Christian faith; disciples needed training; early churches needed doctrinal standards and practical guidelines for explaining and defending the faith; and Jesus’ words needed to be preserved.
So the “gospels” (meaning “good news”) were written to tell the story of Jesus’ life and work. “Acts” told the story of the early church’s expansion from Palestine to Rome. The “epistles” (formal letters) were written to various churches and early Christians. And the Revelation was given by Jesus to the Apostle John.
The New Testament books are not arranged in chronological order, but for more practical reasons. Matthew comes first, as it bridges the Old Testament to the New
Mark was probably the earliest Gospel to be written, followed by Luke and then John. Acts bridges from the Gospels to the letters to the churches, as it tells of the church’s expansion across the Empire.
Paul’s 13 letters were then arranged from longest (Romans) to shortest (Philemon). Hebrews was placed at the beginning of the “General Letters,” followed by the epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude. The Book of Revelation was placed last, as it predicts the return of Jesus and the culmination of his work in history.
Why were these books chosen and other early writings omitted from the New Testament? First, a book must have been written by a apostle or based on his eyewitness testimony. Second, a book must possess merit and authority in use. Third, a book must be accepted by the entire church. And finally, the book must be approved by the decision of the church. Various church councils compiled lists of books already in wide acceptance by Christian communities. These councils did not choose the books of the New Testament–the books had already been chosen by God working through his people. The councils merely codified what the churches had already accepted.
From ancient languages and manuscripts, to thousands of copies, to compiling and recognizing the 66 books which are God’s word for us–the entire process was guided and blessed by God. The One who inspired the Bible also preserved it for us. The more we know about the Bible, the more miraculous it becomes.
A challenging book
“God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” So goes the familiar bumper sticker. But what should a parent do with the biblical imperative, “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death” (Exodus 21:17)? What about dietary laws such as Leviticus 11:7-8: “The pig . . . is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you”? King Saul visited a medium in the Bible (1 Samuel 28)–should we today? David had six wives (2 Samuel 3:2-5)–is polygamy “biblical” now?
To understand the meaning of Scripture, we need to employ the techniques of biblical “hermeneutics.” This is the term used by scholars for interpreting language. The word comes from Hermes, the Greek god who was believed to bring the words of the gods to mortals. Biblical hermeneutics is the study of Scripture, seeking to know what it meant and what it means today.
Why is this field necessary? Because the Bible can never mean what it never meant. In understanding Scripture, it is crucial that we learn what God intended the author to say and then apply that intended meaning to our lives and world.
As we have seen, God intends us to understand his word. But it is also true that the book he inspired is very old. Its authors finished writing during the days of the Roman Empire. Their words were being read 500 years before the Middle Ages, 1400 years before Columbus, and 1700 years before the founding of America. The Bible was written for a very different society from ours.
This fact makes the Bible a challenging book to interpret. For instance, it is hard for us to understand Jonah’s refusal to go to Nineveh unless we know that the Ninevites often peeled the skin from those they conquered and used it to wallpaper their homes. It’s hard for us to interpret Jesus’ command, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:41), unless we know that Roman soldiers were permitted to force their subjects to carry their military pack for one mile.
The challenges inherent in biblical interpretation may cause us to wonder if we are up to the task. Isn’t this what you expect your pastor to do? When you’re sick, you consult a doctor. When you need to travel by air, you trust the pilot. Why do you need to interpret the Bible for yourself? Why not trust the “professionals”?
Because God wants to meet you personally in his word. He doesn’t want you to have a second-hand faith. When Christians depend on the Bible study of others, they are subsisting on second-hand spiritual food. God’s Spirit will help us interpret his word, and the principles taught in this course will help.
What have we learned in this study? God wrote a book in which he reveals himself to us. He inspired humans to record his divine revelation and give us his authoritative truth. He transmitted and preserved his revelation miraculously across more than 20 centuries so that we can study it today. When we use the tools and methods of biblical interpretation, his Spirit will guide us to his intended truth and its application for our lives.
What was his purpose behind all of this? Very simply, so we can know him personally. John the Apostle, Jesus’ beloved disciple and best friend, gave us the purpose of his Gospel and all of Scripture when he explained:
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).
The first key to life-changing Bible study is to seek God in his word. Ask about every passage you study: What does this say about God? About me? About my relationship with my Father? How does this truth reveal God to me? What should I do now to know God better? If your life is not transformed every time you study Scripture, you have not yet discovered all that God intends you to learn and do. God’s word has fulfilled his purpose for it when you know your Father better, are more like his Son, and live in the power of his Spirit.
John Calvin, the great Protestant reformer and theologian, offered this prayer to God when he opened the Bible:
O Lord, heavenly Father, in whom is the fullness of light and wisdom, enlighten our minds by your Holy Spirit, and give us grace to receive your word with reverence and humility, without which no one can understand your truth. For Christ’s sake, Amen.
Let’s join him today.