Principles of Bible Study

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Hundreds of millions own a Bible, but how many actually read and understand it? Can you understand the Bible? Yes, you can, with the help of seven vital principles of Bible study that can help you deepen your knowledge of God and your relationship with Him!


Year after year, the Bible is the world's best-selling book! Chances are you have one on your coffee table”or stored away in a closet somewhere. But how many actually read the Bible? You could be missing out on the most exciting, mind-expanding knowledge and wisdom the world has ever known! Can you really understand the Bible?

More than 100 million Bibles are distributed in whole or in part each year around the world. But how many people actually read the Bible? And how many really understand it? Can you understand the Bible? Yes, you can! This article will share seven principles of Bible study that can help you deepen your knowledge of God and your relationship with Him.

According to a Gallup poll, 59 percent of Americans read the Bible at least occasionally. While that might seem impressive, readership of the Bible has actually declined from 73 percent in the 1980s ("Six in Ten Americans Read Bible at Least Occasionally," Gallup News Service, October 20, 2000).

Studies have found a paradox concerning our Bible knowledge. "Overall, 60 percent of all adults agree that 'the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches.' Yet people's knowledge of the content actually taught in the Bible leaves much to be desired" ("Americans' Bible Knowledge Is in the Ballpark, But Often Off Base," Barna Research Online, July 12, 2000).

We might expect religious people to have at least some acquaintance with the Gospels”the first four books of the New Testament. But a September 1997 study by the Princeton Religious Research Center showed that 63 percent of Americans could not name all four Gospels”Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Author Gary M. Burge pointed out that one-third of incoming freshmen at a religiously based college "could not identify Matthew as an apostle from a list of New Testament names" ("The Greatest Story Never Read," Christianity Today, August 9, 1999, p. 45). Burge went on to emphasize the Bible's importance for discerning truth from error. "To disregard this resource”to neglect the Bible”is to remove the chief authority on which our faith is built. We are left vulnerable, unable to check the teachings of those who invite us to follow, incapable of charting a true course past siren voices calling from treacherous islands such as TV programs, popular books, and enchanting prophecies displayed on colorful Web sites. I am amazed at the number of times mature Christians have come to me bearing ideas discovered in some spiritual flea market, ideas about the Spirit or prayer or eschatology or prosperity that flatly contradict the plain teaching of the Bible."

He is right! We need the trunk of the tree”the sound, foundational truths of Scripture! None of us should be way out on the twigs of the tree, blown about by "every wind of doctrine"”as the Apostle Paul warned in Ephesians 4:14. The solution to the problem is obvious”one must read the book! When was the last time you opened your Bible? According to the above Gallup poll, 41 percent of Americans say that they rarely or never read the Bible. Only 16 percent say that they read the Bible every day. We all should read the Bible every day. Bible truths and Bible knowledge contribute to sound mindedness”and the world desperately needs men, women and children of wholesome character and sound mental health!

How can you reap the treasures contained in the Bible? Speaking of true knowledge, the Bible states: "If you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding" (Proverbs 2:4-6).

How can we unlock the treasures kept in this wonderful book? Let us examine seven basic principles that should help you better understand your Bible, and grasp more clearly the amazing plan the Creator God has for all humanity”how you can have joy and happiness in this life and for all eternity.

Principle 1 - The Bible Is a Complete Book

Many cannot truly understand the Bible because they throw out 77 percent of it. They ignore, reject or even despise the first 39 books of the Bible called the Old Testament. When Jesus quoted scripture, it was from the Old Testament. You may recall that in His tremendous spiritual battle with Satan the devil, Jesus said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God'" (Luke 4:4). Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 8:3! You and I, like Jesus Christ, must learn to live by every word of God, if we are to be happy in this life and throughout eternity!

Writing to the young evangelist Timothy, the Apostle Paul spoke of the genuine faith that was in him, and also in his mother and grandmother. Paul encouraged Timothy that "from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15). Timothy had been taught the Scriptures from childhood”but what were those Scriptures? They were what we today call the 39 books of our "Old Testament." The New Testament was not complete when Timothy was a child. So the Apostle Paul plainly stated that Timothy had understood salvation through faith by reading the Old Testament and accepting Jesus Christ as his Savior!

Yes, the Bible is a complete book! And just as we must not reject any part of Scripture, neither must we add to it our own ideas, as do some who call themselves prophets or even claim that their message is a hidden part of Scripture itself! God gave a sobering warning: "For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book" (Revelation 22:18-19).

Even Jesus Christ's two "great commandments" had first been taught under His inspiration in the Old Testament. The first great commandment”to love God with all our heart, soul and strength”was given in Deuteronomy 6:5. And the second great commandment”to love your neighbor as yourself”quoted Leviticus 19:18. These key New Testament teachings came from Old Testament scriptures! These are commandments of God.

So you cannot understand the truth of God and the plan of God unless you study the whole Bible as the Word of God. As Paul wrote to Timothy, "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 complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Or as the NIV translation accurately renders it, "All Scripture is God-breathed."

Principle 2 - The Bible Is Always Relevant

Many believe that since the Bible was completed approximately 1,900 years ago, it cannot be relevant for us today. But as we have demonstrated in article after article in this magazine, not only is the Bible relevant for today, but its prophecies reveal the near future as well as humanity's incredible destiny. Through it we learn the good news that the earth will not be destroyed by man's evils, because Jesus Christ will return to save humanity from itself. The Gospel of the Kingdom of God is always relevant. Jesus said, "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come" (Matthew 24:14).

Not only have biblical accounts of history been proven accurate again and again, and its prophecies sure, but the Bible's practical advice remains as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. Human nature has not changed! The book of Proverbs gives sound principles of human conduct, and the Psalms speak to human emotions, with every bit of the effectiveness today as when they were first written! Every word of God has some application in our lives today.

Whether or not we have actually considered the Bible relevant enough to read, most of us own at least one copy. Barna Research Online reported that in 1993, "among households which own a Bible, the typical count is three Bibles per household," and that "almost every household in America (92 percent) owns at least one copy of the Christian Bible. This includes most homes in which the adults are not practicing Christians as well as the home of hundreds of thousands of atheists."

If there are any atheists reading this article, I challenge you to open your Bible and simply read it! I expect you will be amazed at the plain, solid, principles and precepts of successful living that you will find. Just start reading the book of Matthew and the other three witnesses (Mark, Luke and John). Read their eyewitness testimony and evidence with an open mind! And for those households with three Bibles or more, encourage every member of your family to read the Bible. It can profoundly change your life for the better, as you immerse yourself in its history, eternal truths and practical advice!

Principle 3 - The Bible Interprets the Bible

This is an extremely important principle, though rarely understood. More than 25 percent of the Bible is prophecy”and it is often expressed using symbolic language. The books of Daniel and Revelation contain much symbolic language. How can you understand it?

Look at one example in the first chapter of Revelation. "He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength" (Revelation 1:16). But how should we understand this description of the glorified Messiah, the Son of Man, standing amidst seven lampstands, holding seven stars? What do these images symbolize? We need not guess; the Bible itself explains the meaning just four verses later. "The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches" (Revelation 1:20). In Bible symbolism, stars are angels”and lampstands are churches. If a symbolic word is not clear, look elsewhere in the Bible for its meaning. This leads us to the next principle.

Principle 4 - Study All the Scriptures on One Topic

Ministers and religious teachers who fail to do this often end up teaching false and misleading doctrines. For example, some teach falsely that God's grace does away with a Christian's obligation to obey the Ten Commandments and the moral precepts of God's law. Yet when we read all the scriptures on this topic, the truth is plain.

Grace is God's gift through Jesus Christ. After genuine repentance, and faith toward Christ's sacrifice, God forgives us of sin. He extends unearned, unmerited forgiveness, favor and pardon. That is God's grace. But can one then live a life of rampant sin and blatantly disobey one's Savior? Not at all! Jesus said plainly: "But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17). Jesus then went on to mention several of the Ten Commandments. The Bible does not contradict itself. God's grace does not grant permission to transgress God's law. The Apostle Jude warned of false teachers who would "change the grace of our God into a license for immorality" (NIV). As the Anchor Bible Dictionary states, "Paul clarified that God's grace brings liberty from sin and not liberty to sin" ("Antinomianism," Vol. 1, p. 263). Romans 6:1-2 also makes this point.

As another example, some take Ephesians 2:15 as an excuse to abolish God's Ten Commandments and the moral law. But actually this verse is speaking of "dogma"”in this case man”made laws that caused division between Jew and Gentile. Remember the principle of studying all the references on one topic. If we read Ephesians 2:15 apart from the rest of the Bible, we could come to a wrong conclusion.

Note this comment from the NIV Study Bible (emphasis ours): "Since Mt. 5:17 and Ro. 3:31 teach that God's moral standard expressed in the OT law is not changed by the coming of Christ, what is abolished here is probably the effect of the specific 'commandments and regulations' in separating Jews from Gentiles, whose nonobservance of the Jewish law renders them ritually unclean." This comment and its approach are consistent with Principle 1 discussed above”that the Bible is a complete book. Study the scriptures in both the Old and New Testaments of your Bible.

Principle 5 - Understand the Context

Read all the scriptures around any particular verse you are studying. For example, some cite Acts 15, the Jerusalem conference, as evidence for abolishing the Ten Commandments. Notice the decision pronounced by the Apostle James: "Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood" (Acts 15:19-20).

But what does this prohibition mean in context? When the Apostles specified these four prohibitions, were the Gentiles freed to sin in other ways? Were they freed to transgress the commandments that say "you shall not kill?" or "you shall not have other gods before the true God"? Of course not! The Apostles in no way abrogated the moral law of God. To understand the Jerusalem conference, we need to read these verses in context. What were the Apostles deciding at the conference? Scripture explains: "And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved'" (Acts 15:1). The issue was circumcision. The conference determined that Gentiles need not be circumcised to be saved. Later the Apostle Paul wrote to the Gentiles in Corinth: "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters" (1 Corinthians 7:19).

As Gary Burge wrote in his Christianity Today article, "Historical exegesis is fast becoming a lost art in the pulpit. Rather than explaining the historical setting of the passage, texts become springboards for devotional reflection. Biblical passages are taken out of context as the preacher searches for those stories that evoke the responses or attitudes desired" (Burge, p. 45). We must not make that mistake when we study the Bible!

Principle 6 - Prove All Things

Teachers and ministers may preach many wonderful-sounding doctrines, but we must not blindly accept what we are told. Scripture instructs us to check for ourselves. "Test all things; hold fast what is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Or as the King James Version puts it, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." The Bereans were commended for their positive and investigative attitude in reading the scriptures. "These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11).

One way to test, or prove, the Bible is to practice its principles and precepts. Jesus emphasized that one must live by the Bible, by "every word of God." He asked those who would seek to be His followers: "But why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do the things which I say?" (Luke 6:46). If we do what Jesus Christ said, we can have a good understanding. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments" (Psalm 111:10)

The Bible is a treasure book of spiritual truth and knowledge. But one must seek out its nuggets of knowledge. You can enrich your life immeasurably, if you rely on this revealed instruction book given by God Almighty to human beings made in His own image. Many have proved, from its effect on their own lives, that the Bible is the written Word of God. As Abraham Lincoln once stated, "I believe the Bible is the best gift God has ever given to man. All the good from the Saviour of the world is communicated to us through this book" (Halley's Bible Handbook, p. 18).

Principle 7 - Pray for Understanding

God is the great Educator. And Jesus Christ is the Master Teacher. The Bible is divine revelation to all humanity, and it emphasizes that we need a teachable attitude. The New Testament book of Acts reminds us that ancient King David was a man after God's own heart (cf. Acts 13:22). Notice David's teachable attitude in praying for understanding. "Show me Your ways, O Lord; teach me Your paths. Lead me in Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; on You I wait all the day" (Psalm 25:4-5).

Pray for understanding as you read and study your Bible. Pray for guidance. God blesses those who respect the scriptures, who reverence His holy Word. "But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word" (Isaiah 66:2).

The Bible is the most important book in the world. If you have neglected reading the Bible, now is the time to make a change. Those who neglect the Bible are missing out on the most exciting and mind-expanding information the world has ever known! Not only can your life be enriched with understanding and inspired living, but you can even understand the future and your incredible human potential and destiny! I urge you to find your Bible, wherever it may be stored away. Begin reading in the book of Matthew. If your attitude is right, you will be greatly blessed and your life will be changed. As Jesus said, "The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:63). You may request a subscription online.

The Bible is not only a book for today, but it is also the book of the future. As Jesus said: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away" (Luke 21:33). Thank God, that He has shared with us the truth and purpose of life. Keep studying your Bible and you will continue to learn amazing truths about your Savior and His plans for your life and your future in tomorrow's world”and in eternity!

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