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A Series of Letters on Bible Study (1): The Basic Tools

D Newell, Glasgow

Dear John,

I am glad you want to learn how to study the Scriptures, for there is nothing of greater importance to a believer. One of the results of regeneration (and therefore an evidence that we are saved) is an in-built desire to read the Word of God. After all, it is the food of the believer's new life: just as we have to eat physically to maintain our bodies so we must set aside time regularly to take in the spiritual nourishment of the Word of God. Peter's instruction is clear enough: "As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby" (1 Pet 2.2). So let me set out the basic essentials.

Any serious task requires tools, and the first tool of Bible study is a reliable edition of the Bible. Although written originally in Hebrew, Aramaic (the Old Testament) and Greek (the New Testament), the Bible loses little in translation. But it is imperative to use an accurate word-for-word rendering rather than one which simply attempts to communicate broad ideas by means of paraphrase. May I suggest that there are two good reasons for staying with the King James Version of 1611. First, because it attempts to translate precisely. When Paul writes that "we [the apostles] speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth" (1 Cor 2.13), he is underlining the truth of verbal inspiration. That is to say, the individual words of Scripture, not just the general concepts, are chosen by the Holy Spirit. Only a literal translation will do justice to those words. Thus, while the NIV renders Matthew 18.20 as "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them", the KJV's "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" is closer to the original. There is a big difference between the Lord Jesus merely being "with" His gathered people and being in their "midst" (a slightly archaic word for middle or centre). When believers gather to His name, the Saviour is not on the edge but at the very heart of the gathering.

Literal translation will sometimes bring puzzling Middle Eastern idioms over into English, but we can usually discover what they mean by comparing their use in other parts of Scripture. Try, for example, Acts 9.28: "And he [Paul] was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem". To understand that phrase, look at the similar language of Numbers 27.17, 2 Samuel 5.2, 1 Kings 3.7, Psalm 121.8 and 139.2. The references, by the way, come from the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge (a wonderful compendium of marginal references and parallel passages) in E-sword! Better to do this work for yourself, and learn a great deal in the process, than surrender to the possibly inaccurate efforts of paraphrasers.

The second reason is that all the great commentaries (for example, Matthew Henry, John Gill, Matthew Poole, Albert Barnes, C H Spurgeon, Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, J N Darby) and Bible aids (Strong's and Young's concordances, Wigram's Englishman's Greek and Hebrew concordances) of the past are based upon the KJV. Little of earth-shattering value has been written in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, for the riches of Scripture have already been thoroughly mined by generations of Bible-loving scholars. You can afford to forgo the superficial paperbacks of today, but do not miss out on godly expositors of the past.

A particularly valuable edition of the KJV is Newberry's. This provides crisp paragraph headings, an excellent system of marginal references, alternative translations, and linguistic annotations which open up some of the more obscure details of the Word. Newberry's Bible itself went through several different editions, but the one to get is the final handy sized version. It includes a brief but clear introduction explaining the meaning of the annotations and other special features.

It is also worth purchasing a cheap KJV (scour the Charity Shops) just for marking. It is good to mark your Bible, because only as we write do we really learn. But discovering how to mark efficiently and intelligently takes practice. As a student I purchased a Cambridge wide-margin Bible and started assiduously cluttering the edges with what I thought were useful notes. Time proved how wrong I was. Instead, use an old Bible to experiment with coloured underlining, highlighting, marginal notes and "railway lines" (thin ink lines linking significant words and phrases on the same page). That way you will not ruin an expensive book. Some people like to Xerox a double-page spread from their usual Bible and use that for marking. A trip to your local stationers will provide you with a range of micro-tipped coloured marking pens. The great thing is to look closely, carefully and constantly at the text of Scripture, and notice what you see.

Although it is wise to stick to one reliable translation as the basis for your study, there is much to be said for comparing it at times with others. Tyndale's wonderful New Testament (1526 and 1534) is now readily available and will startle you with its freshness and clarity. In fact, most of the KJV New Testament is based upon his pioneering work. Others worth having on your shelf include the RV of 1881, J N Darby's one-man translation (with its immensely valuable footnotes), and the NASB. Remember: no translation is itself inspired or infallible, and therefore it is prudent to compare and contrast.

The second tool is a sturdy notebook. Marking one's Bible and writing out study notes are very different activities. Indeed, the first will usually be the considered result of the second. Joshua learned in Exodus 17.14 (the first allusion to a book in Scripture) that what we write down we retain in our heads: "And the Lord said unto Moses, Write this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven". But whatever you do, do not resort to loose sheets of paper because you will lose them. I well remember my father, trained by the Second World War to conserve paper, using the backs of old envelopes, advertising sheets, and any other scraps he could lay hold of for his Bible notes. Then he would stuff them all inside his Bible, thus ensuring that the binding split. Instead, get hold of some hard-back notebooks which will last, and either use them in a simple consecutive way (writing up and dating your notes as you go though the Scriptures), or label them for different Biblical subjects. You might, for example, set aside one notebook for the Old Testament, one for the New Testament, one each for topical studies (Christology, ecclesiology, eschatology), and so on. I have found large sheets of A3 paper most valuable for sketching out thoughts, ideas, outlines, since the size allows space to link up, blot out and revise. But this is perhaps more useful for preparing messages than for the discipline of Bible study.

The third essential is a regular time slot. There is no point waiting until you have spare time because you never will. That is why Paul exhorts us to make the best use of every opportunity, "redeeming the time, because the days are evil" (Eph 5.16). Therefore, bearing in mind your responsibilities, set aside a regular stretch of time once a week in which you can be quiet, alone, and concentrate on your study. It might be early on a Saturday morning before the rest of the family is up and around. It may be during the time that other family members have to be out. You alone know your own timetable and can place your Bible study spot accordingly. But it must be a regular appointment otherwise the whole point of study is lost. Study implies a systematic, regular, disciplined application to a subject. It is not the same as daily Bible reading: that is our daily bread (Mt 4.4), for "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God". Study, on the other hand, is making time to get to grips with the details of the Word, taking notes, looking up related passages, trying to grasp the development of a Bible chapter. Thus the Bereans proved their worth by searching (and the word implies hard work, meaning "to investigate, examine, enquire into, scrutinise, sift, question") the Scriptures daily, to check up on the teaching of Paul the apostle (Acts 17.11).

The fourth essential is a sane plan of action. There is no point sitting at a desk with half a dozen Bibles and ten commentaries lined up in front of you. The best stocked Biblical library in the world is of no avail until you know how to use it. You see, you cannot study haphazardly. It demands organisation and clear goals. Decide whether you intend to investigate a book of the Bible or a topic. I recommend the former, since you cannot really attempt the latter until you have a good grasp of the individual books of the Bible. Philippians might be a good start, or 1 Thessalonians, as they are both short and straightforward. Read through the entire book several times, jotting down your reactions. Ask yourself questions: What is the book about? What are its key words? Why is Paul writing? What sort of things is he teaching? Set yourself a task and stick at it. Remember: Bible study requires solid discipline and determination. We only get out of it what we can be bothered to put in. If we believe there is eternal benefit in getting to know God's Word, we shall make every effort to stay the course. It will be tough, other duties and pleasures will intrude, you will become tired, Satan will try to discourage you  but just keep on!

The fifth essential is a clear understanding of the ultimate aim of Bible study. It is not so that we can beat our friends in Bible quizzes, or prepare sermons to dazzle the saints. Rather, it is that we might be spiritually fed and transformed. We study the Word so that God might mould our lives for His glory. Never forget Paul's teaching in 2 Timothy 3.16-17: "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". Scripture aims to teach, warn, correct, lead us in the right ways so that we might be complete, equipped for all the good works God desires of His people. Read Psalm 119 and find the nine times the Psalmist prays, "Teach me". That should be the prayer of every Bible student.

May the Lord help you as you establish good habits for a lifetime.



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