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A Series of Letters on Bible Study (6): Studying a Paragraph

D Newell, Glasgow

Dear John,

My last letter attempted to give you a brief survey of Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, just to make the point that it is tremendously useful to have some kind of overview in order to grasp the structural design of a book. Every Bible book has its own unique pattern. The parts only make proper sense in the light of the whole. It is like assembling a bookcase from the individual pieces contained in a flat pack: you need a picture or plan to help you see how each bit fits into the finished product. But with Bible study there is a striking difference: in order to get that necessary bird’s eye view one needs first to have studied the whole book in detail. Although a Bible teacher will probably start a ministry series on Ephesians with a telescopic introduction, that introduction is the result of detailed, microscopic verse by verse analysis. The best teachers write their introductory talks at the very conclusion of their studies!

Let us now see how to tackle the raw detail of Paul’s letter. Our sample for purposes of analysis will be the first two sections of the first chapter. Read through the chapter as a whole and look for the paragraphs. All writing falls into logical sections, like the letter I am writing to you. I think you will find that there are three clear units of material in Ephesians 1. First, there is a formal opening to the letter (Eph 1.1-2). Whereas today we begin "Dear John" and end with conventional (and fairly meaningless) greetings such as "Lots of love, Uncle David", Bible letters include that information right at the start. Second, I think we might notice that Paul’s list of the believer’s blessings which begins in v.3 stretches right through to the end of v.14. Third, the rest of the chapter (1.15-23) is devoted to outlining Paul’s comprehensive prayer on behalf of the Christians. Its first word, "Wherefore" (which merely means "Therefore") indicates that what Paul is now writing follows on logically from what he has just penned. It is good to think up appropriate and memorable headings to hold together the main teaching of each paragraph. For example, we could call the first section Prologue (because it begins the letter); the second Praise (because Paul is blessing God for His goodness to us); and the third Prayer (because it records Paul’s desire for the spiritual growth of the Ephesian Christians). Do not feel that you have to resort to alliteration’s artful aid (as someone calls it), but apt, crisp captions can be handy.

Now let us get into the first paragraph (vv.1-2) in a little depth. Never overlook introductions.

"Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus:
Grace be to you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ".

After jotting down who is writing and to whom, the first thing you can do is select some key words to look up in your concordance and Bible dictionary. There are five significant nouns here: apostle, saints, faithful, grace, peace. To find out what a New Testament word means we need to consult (i) a good concordance (Strong’s, Young’s or E-Sword) to see how the same Greek word is used elsewhere in the New Testament, and (ii) W E Vine’s Expository Dictionary for incisive definitions (but make sure you are looking under the correct Greek word; this is easily done because most of the time Vine lists every occurrence). For example, look up "apostle" in your concordance and you will find it translates apostolos, meaning "messenger". It appears 81 times in the New Testament. In fact in Philippians 2.25 it is used of Epaphroditus and translated "messenger" in the KJV. See how many times the word refers to the twelve apostles of the Lord Jesus. Does it ever refer to anyone else? What were the qualifications of the Lord’s apostles? Are there any apostles today? Your study of this word will provide you with interesting and practical results. For a start, you will learn that any cult or religious system which claims to have living apostles just like the Lord’s is a fraud. Of course, once you have done the basic spade work, you will not need to do it again when the word reappears in other parts of the Bible. Bible study, you see, involves the continual building up of a database of spiritual information, all of which helps us as we read more of the Word. That is why it is so necessary to keep a record of our study in a notebook, on our computer, or in the margins of our Bible.

The second thing you might do is look at the divine NAMES in this section: Jesus Christ, Christ Jesus, the Lord Jesus Christ, God, God our Father. Why does Paul speak of Christ in different ways? According to Paul, what do these divine persons do for us? Why do you think they are they mentioned so frequently in just two verses?

A third thing is to note the order in which things appear. This can often be interesting and important. For example, grace comes before peace. Just a little thing, you say. But it spells out the whole basis upon which God blesses His people. You will already have discovered what grace means. And grace is the foundation plank of every spiritual blessing: we only enjoy peace with God because He has first of all acted towards us in kindness. To grasp this will encourage constant humility, assurance and thankfulness.

Having recorded our discoveries in the first two verses we can move on into the second paragraph of the chapter. You might like to think of it as a prose poem consisting of three stanzas, each ending with a refrain ascribing praise to God (1.6,12,14; all three verses use the words "praise" and "glory"). This in itself answers the great question, "Why ever did God choose to save me, of all people?" It was not because of my goodness but for the glory of His name. Our salvation magnifies God, for He did it all. Hence each stanza is devoted to the distinctive saving activity of one person of the Trinity.

First, what did the Father do for us? You will see some key words in vv.3-6: list them and look them up. It is worth noting that Bible words may be used in different ways in different contexts. For example, Paul blesses God for blessing us. Look up what Vine says about this word. It means "to speak well of someone". We bless God by speaking about His excellencies as they are revealed to us in the Word (1 Pet 2.9, JND). That is what praise is all about, which gives a clue as to what we should be doing at the Breaking of Bread meeting. God blesses us, on the other hand, by freely bestowing upon us wonderful benefits beyond our mind’s ability to comprehend. Note carefully where and of what kind these blessings are. Paul is certainly not thinking of physical and material advantages, for not all believers enjoy health, wealth and a secure environment down here. The Saviour came to give His people "life more abundant" (Jn 10.10), irrespective of earthly conditions. Paul was writing from the discomfort of a Roman prison, yet he was simultaneously enjoying his spiritual riches in the heavenlies. Whatever our earthly situation, our spiritual blessings are safe in Christ. Never forget that, for it marks the distinctive character of the church age. Israel’s benefits were earthly, ours heavenly. The Father’s activity in this section might be summed up in the phrase "He hath chosen us" (but notice where, when and why).

Second, what about the Son (vv.7-12)? Note that He is described as "the beloved" (v.6), and check Matthew 3.17 to find out what that means. List what we have in Christ. Investigate the crucial Bible word "blood", which refers in context here to the Saviour’s sacrificial death, a death which satisfies God’s heart and permits Him justly to pardon sinners like you and me. What is God’s long-term goal (v.10)?

Third, the Holy Spirit (vv.13-14) is the One who has sealed believers as God’s exclusive property. To understand what a seal involves, do some concordance work in both the Old and New Testaments. You will find (I hope!) that it speaks of authority, security and ownership. How else is the Holy Spirit described in these two verses? "Redemption" in v.7 speaks of something we have now, whereas in v.14 it looks to the future. Look up Romans 8.23: in what sense are we still waiting to be redeemed? What do you think "the purchased possession" is?

Now all this involves considerable toil, looking up key words, jotting down important cross references, formulating careful conclusions from the Biblical evidence. Proverbs 2.1-5 frankly spells out the cost and the benefit of diligent study. Study will cut you off from much so-called "Christian" socializing, and it may even antagonise those of your peers who have no appetite for God’s Word. You may well find that you spend several weeks slowly working at just one paragraph. But do not give up, for it is worth all the effort. Bible study, remember, is a long-term investment: there is no gain without pain. At the end of working though Ephesians 1.1-14, you should have discovered, if nothing else, that salvation is so great that it required the cooperative participation of each person of the triune Godhead: the Father chose us, the Son redeemed us, and the Holy Spirit sealed us. We just cannot be safer!

Buckle down to it. Record your discoveries so that you can build upon them in the future, and always try to use what you have learned in your assembly service. And may the Lord help you to stick at it.

Lots of love in Christ Jesus



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