Practical keys can be found for opening up to you the rich truths of Scripture: the keys of heart, method, effort, and prayer.
The desire to go deeply with God and in his word is rare—and wonderful. It sets a person apart. It is rewarding, but not easy. It demands: (1) heart (2) method (3) effort (4) prayer. Perhaps the greatest key to getting to know God and his word well is a heart for him, a heart that decides to give him first place in our loyalties, affections, and intellect—a commitment to know and follow him no matter how high the cost.
Having decided that his lordship and his way of the cross are for us, we need some plan—some method to effectively dig into the Scriptures week after week, year after year.
Then we must make time. We have to concentrate. We need to calculatingly seek and search as for hidden treasure. This involves effort.
And we need to pray. God’s Spirit wrote this Book of books, and he is the ultimate teacher of its truths and applications. So we must ask him for light—and wait for his perfect timing in opening our understanding.
The entrance of your words gives light;
it gives understanding to the simple.
The first four years after conversion I neglected the Word of God.—I remained a babe, both in knowledge and grace. Since I began to search it diligently the blessing has been wonderful.
“You will seek me and find me,” God declares to his people in Jeremiah 29:13, “when you seek me with all your heart.”
I am challenged by Jonathan Edward’s words:
Resolved: that all men would live for the glory of God. Resolved second: that whether others do or not, I will.
And through the years these thoughts from the InterVarsity booklet The Quiet Time have also challenged me:
There is a passion for Christ which it has been given to a very few to possess, but which has set those who have it apart forever from their fellow men.—
Amid the terrific onrush of the apostasy, amid the swirl of pleasure which is engulfing the majority of those who call themselves Christians, God has His own.—They are men and women whose faith and zeal burn brighter as the world’s darkness deepens. They are ready to die at Jerusalem, or anywhere, for their Lord. They are valiant for the truth, and wield the sword lustily on God’s behalf. Nevertheless, few have that passion for Christ which Paul expressed in the words, “To me to live is Christ.”
There is reward for the obedient disciples, there is power and authority for the faithful disciples, there is glory of achievement for the zealous disciple—but there is the whisper of God’s love, there is the joy of His presence, and the shining of His face for those who love Him for Himself alone.
A true heart for God will motivate us to seek him diligently in his book.
METHOD AND EFFORT
Many a follower of Christ with heart and zeal and even the Spirit’s empowering is not deep or mature enough in his life or his knowledge of God. Often he lacks a plan for becoming more mature—or the discipline to put such a plan into operation.
To get to know God and his word we need methods that yield the best results for the time invested, and something we can use time and again without always needing some new approach.
In the more than thirty years that I have been searching into this marvelous Book, I find that some form of chapter-by-chapter analysis is the best kind of basic study for me to master the Bible as it was written—in books.
Before analyzing the separate chapters I find it important to prepare an adequate written survey or preview of the entire book. And upon completing a book, writing a summary of it deepens and clarifies my understanding.
But the greatest depth and insight comes from analyzing the individual chapters. I like to begin by searching into the meaning of key words and phrases and their connections. This takes me from two to three hours for most chapters in the New Testament. Then I spend another hour or two analyzing the chapter as a whole. Spending this much time on a chapter doesn’t exhaust its riches, but it does give a good basic understanding. Such digging is the first step toward mastering a book.
In my most recent study of Romans I made a special effort to thoroughly understand its key words—using a concordance to see where and how they were used elsewhere in the New Testament, and occasionally using a Bible dictionary. Often I list in my Bible or on my study page the way these words are translated in other versions, and then I prayerfully meditate on the additional insights and applications these versions give.
While doing this analysis I often am greatly blessed by discovering helpful cross-references. Sometimes this results in short topical studies, with perhaps six to ten other verses pouring light on the phrase or word about which I have a question. On Romans 7:4, for example, I recorded seventeen enlightening cross-references for the words dead, married, and fruit.
After becoming familiar with the parts of the chapter, I want to be sure I understand it as a whole. I try to write chapter tides and outline divisions that are accurate, but also interesting and easily understood.
In a section I call “New Truths” I record interpretations and conclusions about the truths I have been wrestling with.
A written application is also a must. I try to write honestly—putting down no more and no less than what the Holy Spirit has said to me. This sometimes involves changes in relationships or personal actions, but he also gives me convictions for a change of attitude or for understanding a scriptural truth. I particularly like bite-sized, mission-accomplished applications that I complete by the time I finish my study of the book.
We are often quite good at analyzing and applying truth, but notably weak at presenting it. We’re as solid as a teak tree, but often just as heavy and unexciting. So I like to concentrate on presentation as a last part of my study. What verbal illustration, or what drawing can I use to turn on lights in another person? As C. H. Spurgeon said, “Illustrations are like windows—they let in the light”
EFFORT AND DEPTH
A rich part of chapter-analysis Bible study is deciding on the central teaching or “eminent truth” of each chapter you study. This is a demanding part of a study, but it can develop your insights into the chapter and help you correlate your insights with the rest of the Bible.
Although a few people may write long eminent truth statements of several thousand words, I’m not quite up to that. Mine average from four-hundred to eight-hundred words.
This statement of the eminent truth should not be only a summary of the chapter. Instead, first prayerfully decide on a short phrase that tells the chapter’s major teaching or theme. For example, though Romans 6-8 includes many important truths, the major themes to me seem to be:
Romans 6—newness of life (or newness and freedom)
Romans 7—bondage but deliverance (potential bondage but promised deliverance)
Romans 8—victory (present and eternal victory)
Having wrestled with the chapter and decided on the major teaching, summarize this teaching and its implications in one brief paragraph. This generally becomes the opening paragraph of your description of the chapter’s eminent truth.
Often I spend quite a bit of time on this paragraph. I seek to concisely express the major theme and its connection to the chapter, to my life, and to the book as a whole and the rest of the Bible. If I can write this paragraph clearly, writing the rest of the eminent truth involves merely expanding and illustrating this opening paragraph.
In expanding my carefully worked-out opening, I don’t limit myself to points from the chapter. I find it rewarding to consider how this theme relates to other chapters in the book, and to consider the perspective added from other parts of the Bible.
For example, the theme of Romans 6—”Newness and Freedom”—is repeated often in the New Testament:
It begins with becoming a new person—2 Corinthians 5:17.
It develops through knowing God’s word—John 8:31.
It depends on the exercise of faith—Colossians 2:12.
Its culmination is our being seated with Christ now in the place of supreme freedom, privilege, and power—Ephesians 2:5-6.
I wove most of these related passages into my description of the central teaching in Romans 6.
I then find it helpful to write a brief conclusion to summarize the central teaching. This conclusion is often quite similar to my opening paragraph. I like this principle: “Tell them where you are going, then develop it, then tell them where you have been”—introduction, development, conclusion.
Again, note that the central teaching should be written clearly and interestingly, so that another person can read or hear it and understand it.
Writing a good statement of the chapter’s central teaching takes time, but it gives you a far better grasp of the chapter, as well as better equipping you to explain it to others.
DECISION AND DISCIPLINE
Perhaps you are saying, “But all of this takes a lot of time, and I’m already overloaded.
So it is a matter of decision and discipline. Something must go so that other things can have priority.
As Oswald Chambers said,
It is impossible for a believer, no matter what his experience, to keep on with God if he will not take the trouble to spend time with God.—Spend plenty of time with God; let other things go, but don’t neglect him.
Lorne Sanny, the president of The Navigators, relates that years ago the godly Dr. T. J. Bach told him, “I find that we generally make time for the things we think are most important.” This is an insightful statement. Every person in the world has twenty-four hours a day. The rich have no more, the poor have no less. Generally, these twenty-four hours are ours to use at our discretion, and we make time for the things we most want to do or that we think are the most important. We do them by choice, and not because someone forces us.
The question that continually prods me is, How much do I want to go deeper into God’s word and in knowing him intimately, and what am I willing to give up in order to do it?
Open my eyes that I might see wonderful things in your law.
Your hands made me and formed me;
give me understanding to learn your commands.
We cannot read and interpret Scripture as any other book, since Scripture is not like any other book.—The Scripture is among books what the man Christ Jesus is among men; as Jesus is God and man in one person, so is the Scripture a divine word and a human word; hence, only through the Spirit can we understand the true meaning of the Word.
Early in my Christian life I became convinced of the power and sufficiency of the Holy Spirit to teach us even difficult passages in the Scriptures.
One Saturday morning I began reading Luke 16, and I came across the somewhat puzzling parable about the shrewd and dishonest manager. At first it was mainly a blur. What was Christ trying to teach us? After reading it I prayed and asked the Lord to give me light and understanding.
I spent quite a few hours going back over it several times, reading it in a number of translations and wrestling in prayer about its statements. Then spots of light began to appear. Phrases began to have meaning and application, then sentences, then the whole passage.
I was excited, but hesitant. Had I really discovered truth? Or was I off on a tangent? I decided I should check with men who had studied the Scriptures many more years than I had. I went to the church library and discovered three sets of commentaries, all written by sound, godly men.
To my elation the first one I read agreed almost totally with the understanding I had gotten from the Holy Spirit, but I actually felt I had more information and insights than he was able to include in his commentary. The second commentary, by a man equally scholarly and dependable, disagreed at several points, but I could easily see where he had gotten off with some wrong assumptions and then come to wrong conclusions. The third man’s commentary oscillated between the views of the first two.
Had I been dependent only on the commentaries, I would have been in a dilemma and confused. How could I have decided between these three godly scholars?
But I realized that the Lord himself had taught me, and that his teaching was dependable and accurate if I would diligently and prayerfully dig for the truth, studying the words, the sentences, and the context.
It has now been more than thirty years since the Lord opened this passage in Luke 16 to me, and I have found no reason to change those basic insights he gave me. As I have studied the rest of Scripture those early interpretations have been further supported and deepened.
Luke 16 is now one of the most exciting passages I know of for teaching the importance of generosity and giving to the Lord. It has had a deep effect on my life, and I sense great freedom and a touch from God’s Spirit whenever I share from it.
George Mueller wrote,
If anyone should ask me how he may read the Scriptures most profitably, I would advise him that:
I. Above all he should seek to have it settled in his own mind that God alone, by His Spirit, can teach him; and that therefore as God will be enquired of for blessings, it becomes him to seek God’s blessing previous to reading, and also whilst reading.
II. He should have it moreover, settled in his mind that although the Holy Spirit is the best and sufficient teacher, yet that this teacher does not always teach immediately when we desire it, and that, therefore, we may have to entreat Him again and again for the explanation of certain passages; but that He will surely teach us at last, if indeed we are seeking for light prayerfully, patiently, and with a view to the glory of God.
This has been my experience as well—that the Holy Spirit does teach, but not always as quickly as he did for me with the passage in Luke 16. Sometimes I have had to pray for understanding of a passage for weeks, months, or even years. I prayed off and on for nine years before the Lord began to open the riches of Romans 6-8 to my understanding and life. In the years since then I continue to feast in its depths, and repeatedly get new light. The door has been opened and I may now go in and out, discovering new things and old, and learning more fully how to apply these in my life.
Prayer alone is not enough. It is necessary to analyze the passage in writing, putting down my thoughts and revising them as the Holy Spirit gives further insight.
God is deeply concerned that we not remain in his spiritual kindergarten. He wants us to be mature in prayer and mature in understanding his word, and progress in one is essential to progress in the other.
We are not meant to remain as children at the mercy of every chance wind of teaching, and of the jockeying of men who are expert in the crafty presentation of lies. But we are meant to speak the truth in love, and to grow up in every way into Christ, the head.
Ephesians 4:14-15, PHILLIPS