In the first three articles of this series, we have looked at three important landmarks in the spiritual development of a Christian: conversion, baptism, and reception to a local assembly. These are great events, and we can look back to them with immense fondness and gratitude to God, but in many ways they represent simply the beginning of the believers spiritual experience. The Holy Spirit therefore sets out for us (Acts 2.42) a further four features that marked the early church, four good habits in which they engaged. They "continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers". Notice the significance of that expression "continued steadfastly" - it indicates that they were consistent in their practice, that they were continually characterised by these four things. As we consider these qualities over the next few months, let us each measure ourselves against this plumb-line of Scripture. Am I, whatever my stage of Christian experience, "continuing steadfastly" in all these features?
The apostles Doctrine
The first thing in which these early believers continued was the apostles doctrine. In the context of Acts 2 this expression refers to the subject matter of the apostles teaching up to that point - primarily the fact that the Lord Jesus was the Messiah, and that Israel as a nation was guilty of His death. However, we could justifiably widen its meaning to refer to the further truth revealed in the epistles of the New Testament, and (by extension) to the teaching of the whole of the Bible. The apostles were Gods spokesmen to His people. The early believers recognised that, and lived their lives according to what they said. This duty still rests on us today; as Christians, we must abide by the teaching of the apostles. It is therefore vital for each of us to have a grasp of what the apostles (and also their Old Testament predecessors, the prophets) actually taught. Christianity is not based on the ideas of men, but on the truth that God has revealed, and God expects me to live by what He has revealed. Therefore, each one of us must study our Bible in order to understand how God wants us to live. Several things about the Bible make it worth studying:
it is the only book in the world inspired by God (2 Tim 3.16);
it provides me with unerring guidance for life (Ps 119.105);
it is food for my soul (Jer 15.16; 1 Pet 2.2);
it is a defence against sin and temptation (Ps 119.11);
it will give me the ability to defend my faith (1 Pet 3.15);
it provides me with material for worship.
How should I study the Bible?
Note that there are only two essential things for Bible study: an open Bible, and an open heart - i.e. I must read the Bible, and listen for God speaking through it. No matter how many commentaries or study guides I possess, if my Bible or my heart remains closed I will make no progress in the things of God. (It is outwith the scope of this article to give a list of the many study aids, commentaries, concordances etc. available for those who are serious about studying the Bible - interested readers are referred to the very helpful series by David Newell in this magazine in 19991 . Let us look, therefore, at some of the things that ought to characterise my study of the Scriptures.
First, I must study individually. It is a great mistake to rely wholly on others for my knowledge of the Scriptures. It is true that we can all benefit greatly from listening to those whom God has gifted to teach the Scriptures (and therefore we should make every effort to attend meetings where the Bible is taught), but that in itself is not enough: each believer must study the Bible individually. This is true for sisters as well as brethren. In one sense, brethren have it easier: they have the motivation that if they do not study the Bible the poverty of their public contributions in the assembly will demonstrate their lack of Biblical knowledge. Sisters do not have this safeguard, and therefore must be all the more careful not to neglect their own private study of the Scriptures.
Second, I must study regularly. It was the custom of the Bereans (Acts 17.11) to search the Scriptures daily, and we should be no different, making a habit of reading and studying the Bible every day. Notice also that the Berean Christians did not take teaching at face value. They checked that what was preached was consistent with what the Scriptures actually said. We must do the same; take notes of what is said at each meeting, and check what the preacher says is actually what the Bible says.
Third, the Bible must be studied systematically. It is not enough to read random chapters. God gave the Bible in a systematic fashion, and it must be studied in that way. The serious student of the Word should read and study one book at a time, and get to know the major lessons of each book. Make notes of what is learned, and have some way of keeping these notes in an orderly fashion so that they can be referred to later.
Also, I must study intelligently. Each word, verse, and chapter must be considered in its context. If this is not done then serious misunderstanding may occur. For example, some people have found a difficulty in reconciling Pauls doctrine of justification by faith (e.g. Rom 3.28) with the teaching of James 2 that justification is by works. However, if we note that the context of James 2 is what I say before men (v.14 - "what doth it profit...though a man say he hath faith") then the problem disappears. James writes about whether a man is warranted in claiming to be a Christian, whereas Paul writes about my standing before God. Almost every false doctrine is based on a verse or a phrase taken out of context, and can usually be refuted by looking at nearby verses. For example, the phrase "My Father...is greater than all" (Jn 10.29) can be used to teach that the Lord Jesus is inferior to the Father, but the very next verse emphasises the equality of the persons of the Godhead. An appreciation of the context is therefore vital to a correct understanding of any passage of Scripture.
Next, I must study thoughtfully (Ps 1.2; 119.15). It is important to think about what has been read. This is what the Bible means by "meditation". Physical food must be digested before it is of any value, and spiritual food is no different. Very often the real lesson of a passage is not immediately apparent, and it is only after it has been allowed to germinate in the mind that the underlying truth becomes clear. In light of this, the committing of Scripture to memory is of inestimable value. As I meditate on one passage of the Word, other verses will come to mind that will illuminate the portion before me. Even a few spare moments in the middle of some task at work can be used to ponder some aspect of the Bible.
Finally, I must study prayerfully, because there is no other way to understand the Bible. If I do not pray about what I am studying, I cannot expect to learn what God would have me know. Although God expects me to use whatever intellect He has given me, without the gracious enlightening of the Holy Spirit the Scriptures will remain unintelligible. He must open the eyes of my heart so that I can understand what I read (Ps 119.18; 1 Cor 2.11-16).
Note, finally, that no-one is too young to begin the study of the Word of God. The longer I leave it before starting the systematic, thoughtful study of my Bible, the harder it will be. May God give us all an appetite to study His Word!
To be continued.
1 A book consisting of these articles entitled The Believers Library is available from John Ritchie Ltd.