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How can the Bible be the world’s all-time bestseller, yet remain the most misunderstood book ever? Because people so often refuse to believe that it means what it says, it is twisted, maligned and misrepresented.
Most who study the Bible benefit little—or not at all. They become confused, discouraged and give up, saying “I just can’t understand” what it means. You can be an exception. There are 12 fundamental rules that govern proper Bible study. But most ignore, misunderstand or know nothing of them. Yet when properly applied, these basic rules unlock treasures of doctrine, prophecy, instruction, knowledge—and more—contained in God’s Word. If your mind is open to the truth, you can apply them.
Modern Christendom twists, perverts and ignores the many plain truths of the Bible. Over the centuries, it has replaced every true doctrine with a cheap counterfeit. This has been possible because certain less easy-to-understand passages of Scripture can be easily misrepresented—made to say something they do not. It is these verses that invariably become the vehicle by which a false doctrine can be introduced—with almost no one able to recognize it all may have begun with a single wrong scriptural premise.
Most students of Scripture do not build doctrinal understanding by beginning with the clearest verses on a subject. Rather, they enter God’s Word with preconceived ideas and search for passages that appear to support what they have assumed it teaches. This makes them candidates for confusion and deception.
The apostle Peter stated that the apostle “Paul [wrote]…some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest [twist], as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction” (II Pet. 3:15-16). Knowing how most people think, and completely unaware of any rules of Bible study, teachers and scholars can easily take advantage of the way parts of God’s Word have been written. This applies to more areas of Scripture than what Paul wrote.
The theological institutes and seminaries of this world have developed a systematic way—this can be done consciously or unconsciously (read Romans 8:7 and Jeremiah 17:9)—of spinning or dismissing God’s plain words and meaning in favor of making passages appear to say what they need them to say. These theologians and religionists portray—actually sell—Satan’s doctrines through use of specific verses, wrongly understood, that supposedly teach their ideas. This helps easily snare the unwitting and unwary.
Decades ago, a journalist exposed Christians’ ignorance of God’s Word. This has only grown worse today: “A Protestant pastor administered a Bible quiz to the members of his congregation. The questions were very simple. Anyone with a general knowledge of the Bible should have been able to answer all of them easily. The results staggered the pastor. Only 5% of his flock made a commendable grade on the test. 15% failed to give a single correct answer. 60% were unable to name the four Gospels. 75% could not identify Calvary [Golgotha] as…where Jesus was crucified…The vast majority of Americans today are Bible illiterates. They simply have never read the book they profess to regard as the ‘Word of God.’” (United Press International)
The reporter concluded: “A great many people have turned away from the Bible because when they do try to read it, they find they cannot understand it…To the modern reader, it has a remote and antiquarian flavor. It is likely to leave him with the impression the Bible is an ancient history book that has no real relevance to his life here and now.”
Another quote shows how society considers biblical knowledge unimportant. J.B. Phillips, author of the Phillips New Testament translation, wrote: “It is one of the curious phenomena of modern times that it is considered perfectly respectable to be abysmally ignorant of the Christian faith. Men and women who would be deeply ashamed of having their ignorance exposed in matters of poetry, music, or painting, for example, are not in the least perturbed to be found ignorant of the New Testament” (The Young Church in Action).
Christians are to know their Bible! They should always seek to “grow in grace and knowledge” of God’s Word (II Pet. 3:18). We will examine the 12 rules for how to do this.
Rule #1: Ask God for Guidance
Before beginning your Bible study, ask God to open your mind to better understand spiritual principles. Also pray for guidance as to what to study. Then focus on a particular topic, book or chapter. As God opens your thinking, what is confusing to most will become interesting and exciting to you.
First review Psalm 119:33-40. Slowly and carefully digest each verse and each word of these eight verses. We must all come to view God’s Word in this light.
Asking for and receiving understanding from God is no small thing. Many scholars and men of great intelligence have mastered the Hebrew and Greek languages. They have spent entire lives translating and analyzing every Bible verse—but did not understand the messages being conveyed.
For example, James Moffatt translated the Bible into plain language, but its meaning was lost to him. In the preface to his final edition, he wrote, “This is great literature and great religious literature, this collection of ancient writings which we call the Bible, and any translator has a deep sense of responsibility as he undertakes to transmit it to modern readers” (The Bible, A New Translation).
He was an intelligent and highly educated man, yet without God’s Spirit and guidance, he saw the Bible as mere literature.
Adam Clarke, author of a six-volume commentary, also did not truly understand the Bible. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time were men of great intellect who studied Scripture for endless hours—yet all in vain. If these and other men of great intellect failed to grasp the message of God’s Word, do not assume you can study it and automatically understand on your own.
Only by asking God to open our minds can we understand His Word. And understanding will diminish as soon as you stop asking for guidance. True understanding comes from God.
Rule #2: Study God’s Word for Correction
The second rule is related to the first. Sincerely petition God to correct you through Bible study. This should also be part of your prayer for guidance and understanding.
The Bible shows when and where we err in life and what to do about it—both the diagnosis and the prescription. Notice: “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, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Tim. 3:16).
Another key scripture on correction comes from the prophet Jeremiah: “Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walks to direct his steps. Lord, correct me, but with judgment; not in Your anger, lest You bring me to nothing” (Jer. 10:24). Wanting correction ultimately comes from within. Christians earnestly seek and desire God to straighten their paths.
Now read this: “Thus says the Lord, The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool: where is the house that you build unto Me? And where is the place of My rest? For all those things has My hand made, and all those things have been, says the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembles at My Word” (Isa. 66:1-2).
Humility and trembling before God’s Word go hand-in-hand with seeking correction from it. And remember to concentrate on correction of self, not others. Read Matthew 7:3-5.
Rule #3: Prove All Things
God commands Christians to “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (I Thes. 5:21). “Prove” means to put to the test.
The first thing that should be proven is God’s existence. The fallacy of evolution, which attempts to explain away the existence of an all-powerful Creator, has made it difficult for some to completely dismiss lingering doubts. There exists an abundance of well-written literature proving creation is the only explanation for the existence of life and the universe.
My five-part World to Come video series “Does God Exist?—Many Absolute Proofs!” brings undeniable proof of an all-powerful Creator God. Also, my two-part series “Can a Christian Believe Evolution?” will open your eyes to incredible New Testament proof from Jesus confirming the Genesis Creation account.
Scientists and design engineers prove or test finished products. God also commands us to test Him: “Bring you all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in My house, and prove Me now herewith, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it” (Mal. 3:10). Many have put God to this test and discovered He does what He says.
Finally, consider the example of the Bereans in Acts who “were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). The Bereans searched the Bible to prove the apostle Paul’s teachings. This is consistent with I Corinthians 13, which shows love “rejoices in the truth…believes all things [and] hopes all things [in God’s Word]” (vs. 6-7).
Prove means to get to the truth of a matter—and then accept that truth with positive assurance. (If you have not yet proven the authority of the Bible, read my booklet Bible Authority...Can It Be Proven?)
Rule #4: God’s Word Never Contradicts Itself
Many theologians believe the Bible contradicts itself. And many professing Christians claim the it cannot be taken literally. Such statements expose their ignorance.
God speaks of His consistency, and He is plain: “I am the Lord, I change not” (Mal. 3:6), and “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Archeology and fulfilled prophecy add to the overwhelming evidence that the Bible is never contradictory.
One supposed contradiction is Proverbs 26:4: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like unto him.” Now read verse 5: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” These verses are complementary, not contradictory. Which to do depends on circumstances. Verse 4 tells Christians to not degrade themselves by petty bickering and arguing. Do not debate someone who is obviously trying to stir up contention.
Jesus applied this when teaching in the temple. The chief priests, elders and scribes came to Him, saying, “Tell us, by what authority do You these things?” (Luke 20:2). The temple authorities were not seeking advice or understanding from Christ. They wanted to catch Him condemning Himself.
Jesus responded with another question: “He answered…I will also ask you one thing; and answer Me: the baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; He will say, Why then believed you him not? But and if we say, Of men; all the people will stone us: for they be persuaded that John was a prophet. And they answered, that they could not tell whence it was. And Jesus said to them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things” (Luke 20:3-8).
Politicians cannot be pinned down and Jesus knew not to bite. Had He answered any other way, a war of words would have ensued. But He saw their motive and did not stoop to their level. Knowing a question would stop them cold, He avoided needless strife by not answering foolish leaders “according to their folly.”
Now Proverbs 26:5—“Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” Think. In some circumstances, not answering a challenge could cause the questioner to feel he prevailed. One should respond in such cases. You can know which is which.
A good example was Paul’s reaction to the Corinthians when they were being led astray by false apostles. This was no time for silence: “Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by my own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in…the wilderness, in…the sea…among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” (II Cor. 11:23-27).
Paul made his point. False teachers often boast, and these were. His credentials and sacrifices dwarfed their puny claims.
Rule #5: Find Out What the Bible Really Says
Applying this rule usually by itself resolves misunderstandings. Many misconceptions result because the world is blind to the truth of God’s Word. For example, professing Christianity universally teaches that Jesus used parables to make His meaning clearer for the supposed simple minds of the first century. Not so!
Why did Jesus speak in parables? “The disciples said…Why speak You unto them in parables? He answered and said to them, Because it is given to you to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given” (Matt. 13:10-11). Why can’t the world understand this? Spiritual blindness!
Jesus continued: “For whosoever has, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever has not, from him shall be taken away even that he has. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.
“And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, which says, By hearing you shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing you shall see, and shall not perceive: for this people’s heart is waxed gross [or fat], and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted” (Matt. 13:12-15).
This is fascinating. Jesus explains that because people close their minds, He says He makes sure they stay closed—for now.
Jesus also told His disciples—His Church: “Blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which you see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which you hear, and have not heard them” (Matt. 13:16-17).
The world’s opportunity for salvation will come when God calls the masses later. The fact that spiritual blindness may be lifted from your eyes should be humbling. God may be calling you now. If so, it is the biggest reason you can understand the Bible.
Rule #6: Examine the Context
Context simply means “with text.” Checking context involves reading the text before and after the issue in question. Understanding context is vital to grasping the correct meaning of scriptures. Context points to the intent of a passage. It generally will answer who, what, when, where, why and how.
It is careless to read out of context, because of statements like “You shall not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). To determine whether this is true, context is everything. In this case, Satan was deceiving Eve. Checking context takes the reader back to Genesis 2:17, where God told Adam, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die.” God’s obvious meaning is you are as good as dead—or you will die in time.
False teachers more easily deceive people who don’t investigate deceptive practices, like taking verses out of context to misapply them. One of the many benefits of recognizing proper context is that it builds resistance against deception.
Rule #7: “Here a little, there a little”
One verse cannot establish doctrine. A person must gather all scriptures on a subject to see the full picture.
Without God’s Spirit leading you, the door to true understanding is closed. And we saw Jesus used parables to hide meaning from the world at large. This applies to understanding the whole Bible.
God’s Word is written in a way that defies understanding on the physical level. Notice this: “Whom shall He [God] teach knowledge? And whom shall He make to understand doctrine? Them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts [meaning adults]. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isa. 28:9-10).
We must diligently examine verses throughout the entire Bible to gain true knowledge and understand doctrine. This requires being led by God’s Spirit. Continuing, “For with stammering lips and another tongue will He speak to this people…yet they would not hear” (vs. 11-12). These verses show an intentional hiding of meaning by God, as if it were a foreign language. But Israel also showed a willful rejection of the truth—“they would not hear.”
Verse 13 adds, “The word of the Lord was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken [by wrong understanding].” Again, see the unmistakable hiding of the meaning.
The next example shows the need to draw from precept upon precept or line upon line. You will see that verses people call contradictory actually supplement each other. Here are four verses critics say demonstrate contradiction about what was written on the stake above Christ’s head.
Matthew 27:37: “Set up over His head His accusation written, this is jesus the king of the jews.”
Mark 15:26: “The superscription of His accusation was written over, the king of the jews.”
Luke 23:38: “A superscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, this is the king of the jews.”
John 19:19: “Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, jesus of nazareth the king of the jews.”
Together, these verses show Pilate did the writing, and that four versions were written in three languages. All four contributions, from four authors, give a complete account. The full picture emerges by assembling “line upon line.” Rather than contradicting scriptures, the four gospels together work in harmony to present a complete understanding.
With just these first seven of the 12 rules of Bible study, you can study with much more understanding. Part 2 will present the final five, along with additional practical points to get more out of God’s Word. Do not miss it. In the meantime, read our free article Study to Show Yourself Approved.