Studying Scripture –
some tips and notes
The Bible is God’s written word to the human
race. In it He reveals things that otherwise we would not know.
However this does not mean that everything within it can be, or is,
easily understood by all. This article is an attempt to help
believers to study scripture for themselves and to give some
guidelines in their study. This is not an exhaustive treatment of
the issue, but I hope a helpful one. The main emphasis I wish to
make is, that in the final analysis we can only understand Scripture
properly as the Spirit of God teaches us and as we receive it from
Him in all humility.
1. The foundations
acknowledge that the Bible is God’s Word, inspired by the Spirit.
(II Tim.3: 16; II Pet.1: 20-21) and as such cannot be completely
understood by the rational methods of man’s mind alone. Any attempt
to do so will result in error and unbelief in the true and living
God. The natural man cannot discern the things that are from God,
and unless God opens our eyes we can never come to a proper
understanding of the truth. Only the Holy Spirit can give true
understanding, and lead us into all truth. (Cf.Jn.16: 13; I Cor.2:
12-16). In order to have the Spirit reveal these things to us we
must therefore have the Spirit in our lives. In other words we must
be born again. If we do not have the Spirit of Christ we are none of
His (Rom.8: 9). In fact the whole of Romans chapter 8 deals with
this issue of being in the Spirit or in the flesh. In any aspect of
Christian living the principle is the same: we can only know the
things of God through His Spirit and never through any human effort.
Also we must recognise that, not only must we
have the Spirit of God but we must also walk in the Spirit, if we
are to have God revealing things to us. Take for example Abraham. On
one particular occasion God said this:
“And the LORD said, Shall I hide from
Abraham that thing which I do; Seeing that Abraham shall surely
become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth
shall be blessed in him? For I know him, that he will command his
children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of
the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon
Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.” Gen.18: 17-19
We see that the reason for God revealing the
destruction of Sodom and the other cities of the plain, was directly
linked to Abraham’s OBEDIENCE to the ways of the Lord. In the New
Testament we read that Peter says that God gives the Holy Spirit to
those who obey Him. (Acts 5:32) Also we read what Jesus says.
“If any man
he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I
speak of myself.” John 17:7
“For what man knoweth the things of
a man, save the spirit of man, which is in him? even so the things
of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received,
not the spirit of the world, but the spirit, which is of God; that
we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which
things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth,
but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with
spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the
Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he
know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is
spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man.
For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him?
But we have the mind of Christ.” I Cor.2: 11-16
So we see that knowing the doctrine (Greek=
instruction) is dependent on doing His will. Note it is the doing
and not just knowing God’s will that is in view here.
Finally in this section we have to recognise
once more our inability to know anything apart from God. Therefore
as James puts it:
of you lack wisdom,
let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth
not; and it shall be given him.” James 1:5
2. The Central message of the
Moving on from the previous thoughts
we consider some more basic truths that we have to understand if we
are to study God’s book aright. Although written by over forty human
authors, and over some 1600 years there is a unity in the Bible’s
message: it is God’s dealings with the human race.
There are many messages, but the central
message of the Bible is Jesus Christ: the scriptures speak of HIM,
from start to finish. Consider the following:
“Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith
unto him, we have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the
prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
had ye believed Moses,
ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me.”
“Then he said unto them, O fools,
and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken:
Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into
his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he
expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning
These scriptures clearly show that the
OT scriptures spoke of Christ. Did not Jesus say that Abraham
rejoiced to see His day? (Jn.8: 56). The NT writings are full of
Christ; just a casual reading can leave no one in any doubt about
that. Jesus Christ is indeed the pre-eminent one. From the first
chapter of Genesis to the last chapter in Revelation the central
message is Jesus Christ.
The law foreshadows Christ, the types
typify Christ, the prophets prophesy Christ, the Gospels show the
incarnate Christ, Acts shows the exploits of the risen Christ, the
epistles teach Christ and Revelation shows the glory of Christ.
It is no wonder that the devil seeks to
undermine the authority of scripture. For with each blow of unbelief
Christ is ‘robbed’ of his rightful place amongst men’s thoughts.
There is a divine unity of the Bible,
from start to finish. We ignore this truth at our peril. (It goes, I
hope, without saying that there is no contradiction at all in
scripture; there are apparent contradictions, which we call
paradoxes. These are dealt with in the final section below.)
worth saying that in studying the Bible understanding the difference
between the two covenants (Old and New) is of vital importance to a
proper view of scripture. It is always best to understand the clear
light of the NT before venturing into the Old.
In concluding this section I finish
with a well-known saying, but one, which is nonetheless true:
The New is in the Old contained, the Old is in
the New explained.
3. The purpose
of the Bible
In writing a book God must have had some
definite purpose behind it. We are left in no doubt as to that
purpose. For in the scriptures themselves we read what it is.
that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are
able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in
Christ Jesus. 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.”
II Tim.3: 15-16
We see then that the scriptures:
us wise unto salvation. The whole human race is dead in trespasses
and sin and through the finished work of Jesus Christ we can have
salvation from our sins and the judgement to come.
“But these are written, that ye might
believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing
ye might have [eternal] life through his name.” Jn.20: 31
Dear reader, have you truly believed on Jesus
and know the forgiveness of sins and have the true life that is only
found in HIM? If not then that is your greatest need and the rest of
this article is of little value until you yield your life to the
The scriptures are then given to instruct, correct, and if necessary
reprove those who name the name of Christ. We are no longer our own
but we belong to Christ and as such we have to live according to His
ways. The scriptures teach us what the Lord expects from us so that
we can become conformed to His image (e.g. Rom.8: 29; Eph.4: 11-15)
Summing up: the Bible has not been given to
make us intellectuals, but rather for us to know the salvation of
God and then to know how to live according to God’s perfect will.
The Bible is God’s written Word speaking to the hearts of men and
women. As Jesus said on many occasions –he that has ears to hear let
4. Some tips
Knowing the salvation of God and His purpose
for our lives we can then move onto looking at some tips on studying
scripture. At the outset I would like to make it clear that these
are in no way meant to be ‘mechanical’ methods, but rather guiding
principles when studying. Once more I will say that only the Spirit
of God can give us a true understanding.
w No part of scripture can
contradict another part, but is always in harmony with it.
This naturally follows given that the Bible is God’s Word. If there
are parts of scripture that appear to be contradictory then it is
our understanding that is at fault. (See section on ‘paradoxes’
Because of its
unity the Bible, is its own commentary. Thus to
understand the book we must allow scripture to interpret itself. (I
Cor.2: 13). As an aside Spurgeon once said, “ The Bible throws
great light upon the commentaries.” We should also note that the
Bible is all-sufficient. That is we do not need extra-biblical
sources for us to understand its essential spiritual content.
Context determines meaning;
‘a verse out of context is a pretext’, as the old saying goes. You
can prove anything from scripture if you ‘wrest’ them. As Peter puts
it. (II Pet.3: 16). Take a simple example:
“My brethren, have not
the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now just to take this portion of scripture on
its own simply means that we are not to have faith in Christ at all!
This is obvious nonsense, so what does the passage mean? Well we
must read its context:
“My brethren, have not the faith of
our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.
James is saying that we must not have
persons if we have true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; a different
An interesting quote from Wycliffe is
apt at this stage.
greatly help ye to understand Scripture If thou mark not only what
is spoken or written but of whom and to whom, with what words, at
what time, Where to what intent with what circumstances, considering
what goeth before and what followeth.
It was said of Campbell Morgan, a great Bible
teacher, that before he gave an exposition on a book of the Bible,
he would read it through 100 times first! The lesson? Get to know
the context of the passage you are studying well.
obtain the fullest teaching on any topic all the scriptures on
that subject need to be collected together and compared.
Failure to do so will result in a misunderstanding of what God had
in mind. Let’s take an example.
Ask, and it shall be given you;
seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh
findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Mtt.7: 7-8
On its own this passage seems that
Jesus is writing a blank cheque for our wants. Yet if we look at
other scriptures we see that this is far from the case. The reader
is directed to take
a look at the following, and to find other scriptures relating to
asking. Jms.4: 3; Jn.16: 23;Mk.11: 24;Jn.15: 27;I Jn.5: 14.
It is a good exercise to choose a topic
then read the Bible through making your own notes when you come
across that topic, when you’ve finished mediate on those scriptures
and see what you’ve learnt. No one said Bible study would be quick!
The clearer passages are to explain the
obscure ones, not vice versa. Usually this will mean understand the
OT in the light of the NT, and never the other way round!
Consider how scripture uses
particular words. Beware the English dictionary though, for
the Bible does not necessarily use words with the same meaning that
we do in our cultural setting. With Bible versions some words change
their meaning since the translation was done; one example of changed
meaning is the word ‘prevent’ in I Thess.4: 15. In 17th
Century English the word meant ‘go before’ but the past four
centuries have seen this word change its sense. By using a good
study Bible such as Newberry’s ‘The English man’s Bible’ such
difficulties will be resolved.
This immediately raises the question of Bible
versions, but this is not the place to consider the matter. Suffice
it to say that after 30 years of personal Bible study I have found
the KJV (1611) the most reliable in the English language, and since
many study aids are linked to the AV this version is very accessible
to the student. That is not to say that other versions have no
value. Sometimes one version may not quite phrase a particular
passage in a clear light, then by comparing other translations it
may help one to a better understanding of what the writer was
saying. One passage in particular the AV seems a bit clumsy with
(to our 21st century ears anyway) is I Cor.7: 32-40. Read
it in the AV and then with other translations and see what you
The writers did not always use words in their
strict cultural sense; sometimes they took a word and used it with a
new meaning. The way to understand what the writer meant us to
understand is to collect and compare all the scriptures that use
this word, and in what context as mentioned earlier. Also good
Greek dictionaries will help. There are three that I would
recommend; they are Strong’s and Young’s analytical concordances,
and Vine’s expository dictionary.
Consider the differences between literal and
non-literal words/phrases. All languages use non-literal ideas, and
one has to be vary careful lest we push words to meanings they were
never intended to have. For example in Lk10: 31 Jesus uses the words
“by chance” in the parable of the Good Samaritan. This does
not mean that Jesus was denying Divine Providence, but rather just a
saying meaning that the direction of the Samaritan was without any
Watch out for figures of speech,
ironical/sarcastic language and also hyperbole. By doing so many
seemingly difficult passages will make sense! For example Jesus
talked about cutting of off the hands etc if they offend. Clearly He
did not mean this literally, because the disciples didn’t cut off
their hands! What do you think He meant? (It is good to think about
There are several principles (laws)
of interpretation that Bible students over the centuries have laid
out. Again they are not meant to be mechanical rules, but guidelines Here
are some of those principles.
‘law’ of first mention: the first mention of any subject
in scripture usually contains the essential elements of that subject
that are later developed in scripture. Take for example the first
prophecy concerning Christ;
And I will put enmity between thee
and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise
thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
Gen. 3; 15
Here we see
took the initiative and made the promise of Christ. Thus we see
Salvation is of God
was to come through the seed of a woman, i.e. the saviour was to
become a man
would bruise the saviour, a clear reference to the cross. (He was
bruised for our iniquities….)
saviour would ultimately destroy the devil.
Looking at the above points, can you
think of other scriptures that show the development of this promise?
‘law ‘ of progressive mention. Throughout scripture there is an
orderly development of the main themes. This follows on from the
previously discussed principle. Take a very simple, and this is by
no means an exhaustive treatment, but an illustrative example
nonetheless. Consider Jesus the Lamb; Gen22: 18 the lamb
is seen in prophecy; Ex.12 the lamb is seen in type,
Isa.53: the lamb is seen as a person; Jn.1: 29 the lamb is
seen by all; I Pet 1:19 the lamb is seen crucified;
Rev.5: 6 the lamb is seen glorified. There are other
scriptures too that the reader could find to show this development.
One interesting exercise that the reader is
encouraged to try: trace the development of the prophecies
concerning Christ from Gen.3: 15 to Malachi, and see how God reveals
more of the saviour as time marches on, and note the increase in
detail as the NT era approaches.
‘law’ of full mention. Each of the Bibles main themes is given
a complete treatment in a systematic way. The classic example of
this is faith, which is dealt with in Heb.11. This chapter is so
well known that it seems pointless to go over it. But just look
briefly at this eleventh chapter. At the start we have Faith
defined: “ the substance (=ground) of things hoped for the evidence
(=confidence) of things not seen; then we have the necessity of
faith (without it is impossible to please God); we then have the
roll call of faith, the OT examples; then finally we have the
perfection of faith.
Another example is that of II Cor. 8-9, where
the topic is on giving. On this occasion Paul does not give a
textbook treatment of giving, but rather exhorts the Corinthians to
give by applying general principles, and we can, by considering the
application, learn those principles. In scripture that is how truth
is usually shown: principles working out in reality.
Typology is a broad term that refers to
anything, which can be used to illustrate spiritual truth; these can
be events, God-given instructions, inanimate objects etc. In the NT
the various words that are used to note types are: figure
(several different Greek words) and shadow. Examples of this
would include Israel’s departure from Egypt, the sacrificial system
and so on. Here are two examples that the NT specifically
highlights. (There are others!)
(i)..once the longsuffering
of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing,
wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like
figure [Greek =ANTITYPE] whereunto even baptism doth also now save
us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer
of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus
Christ: I Pet.3: 20-21
Here the apostle says that the flood of
Noah’s day is a type (illustration) of salvation in Christ by the
baptism in the Spirit
(ii) For it is
written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other
by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the
flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an
allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount
Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is
mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem, which now is, and
is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is
free, which is the mother of us all. Gal.4: 22-26
Paul here uses the story of Sarah and Hagar to
illustrate the two covenants: the old, legal one by Hagar and the
new by Sarah. It is worth saying again that in studying the Bible
understanding the difference between the two covenants is of vital
A note here to emphasise the importance of the
difference between the Old and New Covenants would be apt. The Old
Covenant was a legal code given to Israel at Sinai. It contained
many laws, ceremonies and so on. The essence of it was that it was
external religion. (The book of Hebrews calls them carnal
ordinances; Heb.9: 10). The New Covenant, however is internal, that
is to do the life of God being expressed in people through His
Spirit and not by external law. Not that we don’t fulfil the law,
but rather we do so because of the life that is in us. (Heb.8: 8-13;
It is sad that many Christian whilst having
the Spirit insist on being entangled in some form of legal bondage.
A full study of the subject here is not possible, but the epistle to
Galatians is clear on this issue. Christ has redeemed us from the
law and we are to walk in the Spirit, and so not fulfil the desires
of the flesh.
(iii) Perhaps the best-known type is
the Tabernacle and its sacrificial system. When looked at in light
of the teaching in Hebrews it gives a wonderful insight to the
person and work of the Lord Jesus. There are plenty of good sources
the student can access on this topic.
It must be said that types are only
illustrations and they should never be the foundations for doctrine-
the clearer passages do that. Once more scripture must be compared
to ensure a correct understanding of the types in question.
6. Some tools
I said these earlier “[we] do not need
extra-biblical sources for us to understand it…” but sometimes
there are certain books, that are the result of other men’s godly
studies, which can help us to understand certain aspects of the
Bible. Some well tried ones:
Young’s and/or Strong’s to find passages, or the original words and
(NT) and Wilson’s (OT) expository dictionaries give a more detailed
look at the words of scripture and their meaning.
Bible: perhaps the best analytical one is Newberry; Thompson’s chain
reference is good for topical study.
Treasury of scripture knowledge has cross references for every verse
in the Bible, some 500 000 references in total, a good investment!
are to be treated with great care! Note the comments made earlier.
They can be useful, especially for historical context and cultural
background, but be very careful the commentaries are not
inspired, let alone infallible. Remember writers write from their
own theological perspective, E.g. Calvinism, pre-millennialism,
so take that into account.
etc. can be useful for background detail but be careful, many
have contributions by liberal scholars.
There is a vast quantity of computer study aids. The one I recommend
is the ‘Bible Online’ available from Answers in Genesis. It
has many different versions for comparison and excellent search
facilities amongst other useful things.
From time to time there are certain passages
of scripture that appear to contradict, or at least be in conflict,
with another passage, or passages. As stated in the first guiding
principle Scripture is always in harmony with and can not contradict
itself. Any passage(s) that give that impression are properly called
paradoxes, and the obvious question is: how do they harmonise with
the rest of scripture?
The first thing to say is that it is not my
desire, or intent, to get involved in arguments with people just to
‘prove’ the Bible is correct. Usually people only involve themselves
in such fruitless discussions because they want to avoid the real
issue of their standing with God and their need to repent of sin.
However for many people such paradoxes are a problem and can be a
genuine stumbling block in their lives. It is to these people, and
those who want to know their Bibles better that I address in this
The first thing to say is that paradoxes of
scripture have been recognised ever since the canon of scripture was
completed; there is nothing new here! Therefore many of them have
already been resolved and satisfactory answers given, it is a
question of looking up the right sources! However some may wish to
think through the paradoxes for themselves, so here are some of my
thoughts, but they are not infallible at all.
w If it is a question of chronology then the
first question to ask is “what calendar is the writer using?” for
example the differences in the chronology of Daniel or Ezekiel, and
the corresponding events in Kings or Chronicles is that the former
uses the Babylonian method of reckoning, and the later the Jewish
method. Thus any differences are easily resolved.
Two passages relating to the same event can
sometimes be easily reconciled by the fact that one writer may omit
some details, which the other includes. For example Mtt.8: 28 we see
two men possessed, the parallel passage in Mk.5: 2 only one is
mentioned. There is no contradiction simply because Mark’s account
only concentrates on one of the men.
Events that appear at different times. For
example Jesus overthrowing the money tables in the temple. In John’s
account (Jn.2: 13-17) this happened at the start of the Lord’s
earthly ministry, yet in the synoptics at the end of His earthly
ministry. (Eg.Mtt.21: 12-13). The simple fact is that this cleansing
of the temple happened twice. Once at the start, and once at the end
of the Lord’s earthly ministry. The synoptics mention the latter,
and John the former, no contradiction at all!
must be admitted that some paradoxes appear to have no resolution at
all, no matter how hard one researches it. In such cases we have to
say that we are not in possession of the full facts, and that our
understanding is not complete. It is then we have to decide whether
we trust God’s Word as being true or believe the fallen thoughts of
men and accuse God of contradicting Himself!
Some people say
that some paradoxes are a result of scribal errors in copying the
text at some stage. This is a difficult issue, because textual
criticism is a highly technical subject, of which the average
Christian knows nothing, and the experts don’t always agree either!
What are we to make of this? Let us consider one passage where it is
said that there was a scribal error that has lead to a paradox.
And it came to pass after forty
years, that Absalom said unto the king, I pray thee, let me go
and pay my vow, which I have vowed unto the LORD, in Hebron.
II Sam.15: 7 (AV)
The NIV has four years with a note
saying that: Some
manuscripts have forty. *
assumption is that since David’s reign was only forty years in total
then this reference to Absalom, can not be forty as well, and so
there must have been a scribal error. However there is a proper
explanation without saying it was a scribal error. Matthew Henry in
his famous commentary gives a plausible solution.
We have here the breaking out of
Absalom’s rebellion, which he had long been contriving. It is said
to be after forty years, II Sam 15:7.
But whence it is to be dated we are not told; not from
David’s beginning his reign, for then it would fall in the last year
of his life, which is not probable; but either from his first
anointing by Samuel seven years before, or rather (I think) from the
people’s desiring a king, and the first change of the government
into a monarchy, which might be about ten years before David began
to reign; it is fitly dated thence, to show that the same restless
spirit was still working, and still they were given to change: as
fond now of a new man as then of a new model. So it fell about the
thirtieth year of David’s reign. Absalom’s plot being now ripe for
execution. (Emphasis added)
The point here is that by a closer
consideration of scripture we can find the resolution to the paradox
without saying it must have been a scribal copying error. It may be
that in other cases such an approach will not result in a ‘neat’
solution. Personally I would prefer to leave the matter until one
can be found without resorting to the ‘scribal’ error solution. To
my way of thinking, if one concedes that one part of scripture is a
result of scribal error then who is to say that other [more
significant] parts are not? This issue needs a study in itself and
this is not the right place to deal with it in full.
My understanding is that the overwhelming textual evidence is for
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